Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Saving His Marbles

By Bill Friskics-Warren

James Agee craved utter immersion in experience; it was as if his sanity depended on it. His art certainly did. It pained him, for example, that all he could do was empathize with the Alabama sharecroppers he wrote about in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And yet even then he let the full force of their wretchedness and dignity hit him like a train.

On the title track of his debut album, Take That Ride (Oh Boy! Records), poet and singer-songwriter R.B. Morris weighs the cost of Agee's refusal to separate art from life. "I don't want to die like James Agee/In the back of some taxi on the run," he sings. "So much time wasted/The feast of life just tasted/Then it's gone/But the life that he was living/And the gift that he was giving/Were all one."

A mainstay of the local club scene for the past two years, Morris grew up in Agee's Knoxville neighborhood of Fort Sanders. And while he may have misgivings about living--and dying--like his fellow Knoxvillian, his debut oozes with Agee's Dionysian sense of abandon. It's there in the revelry of "Ridin' With O'Hanlon," in the worker solidarity of "Hell on a Poor Boy," in the eschatological longing of "Glory Dreams." It's also evident in Morris' musical ecumenism--a rough mix of country, rock, blues, and gospel--and in his Beat-inspired intoxication with language.

Even if Morris' passion for the cadences of Kerouac and Ferlinghetti distances him from his Appalachian roots, he's no carpetbagger hawking blue-collar chic (unlike other performers huddled under the Americana tent). His father worked the L&N Railroad for decades, and his mother's people fished and farmed on the islands of South Carolina; Morris himself toiled as a laborer and once stood in the soup lines he describes in "Hell on a Poor Boy." His years in the mountain honky-tonks of East Tennessee even acquainted him with the bootleggers and revenuers of Robert Mitchum's "The Ballad of Thunder Road." When Morris sings the body electric, he's singing a song of himself.

Like Whitman--and Agee, for that matter--Morris is occasionally too full of himself, as in the mythopoeia of "Pot Hole Street" or in the pre-millennial preachments of "Bottom of the Big Black Hull." He's at his best when exploring the possibilities and limits of human communion--something he does most poignantly on "Roy," a dusky duet with label-mate John Prine about a wino who used to run with country legend Don Gibson before Gibson was a star. Played with scruffy insouciance by Prine, Roy is no mere cipher--Morris and the old down-and-outer have such an intimate rapport that the song emanates as if from a moment outside time. "Do I talk too much, let me know if you mind?" rasps Prine, invoking the sodden refrain of a thousand obnoxious drunks. And yet here his words serve a priestly function: The empathy in his wine-transformed voice unleashes a sacramental power that further binds the men together.

Rock of Agee Knoxville singer-songwriter R.B. Morris
Prine's presence on the record highlights the similarities between the two rootsy singer-songwriters. But whereas Prine relies heavily on folk sources and studio polish, Morris is at once more bluesy and more rocking; he also betrays a darker urgency. You wouldn't hear Kenny Vaughan's molten guitar on a Prine album, nor would you hear the anguished embrace of Morris' voice and Vaughan's jabbing leads on "Take Time to Love." Ultimately, though, R.S. Field's layered production, like Howie Epstein's on The Missing Years, owes its greatest debt to the mid- to late-'60s records of Bob Dylan and The Band.

Along these lines, "Dog Days" is an earnest paean to Big Pink, but it's also more than that. Like Morris' screenplay about Agee, The Man Who Lives Here Is Loony, the song is another of the singer's attempts to come to grips with his hero's life and art. Here, however, the oppressive East Tennessee summer--where the hot, humid air engulfs not only skin, but consciousness too--symbolizes the lunacy inherent in Agee's thirst for complete spiritual and sensory immersion. "Dog Days and what do I care/Laughing at the moon about halfway there," sings Morris, immobilized by the barometric pressure and by the weight of his desire.

Having seen a similar madness played out in Agee's experience, Morris gives pause. He acknowledges that "All of my luck is on the end of this line," referring as much to his place in Agee's poetic lineage as to the fishing line he's dangling in the water. Nonetheless, he avers, "I'm saving my marbles"--not quite ready, like Agee, to lose them.

R.B. Morris plays a record-release party June 26 at the Sutler.

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