On a rather unremarkable Tuesday night in October, the Clayton Center for the Arts’ Lambert Recital Hall was filled with Knoxville artist R.B. Morris’ smooth southern drawl – at times reciting poetry, telling stories or singing songs.
Morris was born in Knoxville and has always found his way back here, even after time spent in cultural capitals like New York City and San Francisco. Threads of Knoxville can be found in most of his works, especially the ones he chose to showcase as part of MC’s Appalachian Lecture Series. He opened his performance on Oct. 11 with a recitation of a poem about his feelings for Knoxville and its slightly confused identity.
He followed with a succession of other poetic works, many of which illustrated his strong connection to Appalachia and East Tennessee.
Between readings, he regaled the audience with tales of his life and travels in his unhurried, lilting Southern tones. His stories of his “hermit year,” the time he spent living isolated in a rustic mountain cabin, provided background information that gave his poems and songs another level of depth and complexity.
One of the favorite poems of the night was “The Can Man.” In it Morris describes a homeless man who used to occupy the sidewalks and alleys of Morris’ downtown Knoxville neighborhood. The piece brought both comedy and a certain social commentary, a duality of nature that seemed to appeal to the crowd.
Morris followed his poetry readings with several smooth, folksy songs, the type of which make sitting still without tapping a toe or a finger nearly impossible. His music has a distinctly Appalachian feel, but Morris said that he would classify himself as a musician from Appalachia rather than an Appalachian musician.
On the afternoon before Morris’ performance, Professor Kim Trevathan’s creative writing, nonfiction class was lucky enough to be able to chat with Morris. The writing students, joined by several of Dr. Matascik’s music students, questioned Morris about both of his art forms and how they are related.
When asked by senior Justin Kirkland how his approaches to poetry and songwriting differ, Morris responded that the two are “kind of the same thing—if you stand back far enough.” He went on to explain that “a good line is a good line and it may exist in either [medium].”
He spoke about his musical influences as “dusty old songwriters,” and folk rockers. He seemed to have a strong connection to Bob Dylan as a fellow artist who identifies himself more as a lyricist than a musician.
In light of his upcoming show that evening, another student asked what live performances are like for him. Morris thoughtfully responded with an evocative metaphor: “Live performance is like walking out on a tightrope. It’s a peak experience that can grow you or kill you.”
Most musicians seem to thrive off performance, but in this, Morris is different. He does not need an audience cheering him on to receive fulfillment in his music and his poetry. The existence of the words is enough for him.
To learn more about R.B. Morris and his work, visit rbmorris.com.
Pulitzer prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson will be the next speaker of the Appalachian Lecture Series when she comes to the college on Nov. 20.