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Nashville Scene Soul Music

R.B. Morris explores spiritual issues on latest disc

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  On R.B. Morris' album Zeke and the Wheel, the Knoxville-based performer poses a query that gets at the theme of much of his songwriting: "Maybe the soul can still be pure/I like to think it's true," he sings, weighing in on a thorny philosophical tenet that's been greasing the wheels of heavy thinkers since the earliest recorded musings of mankind. He follows that line with a couplet that tackles the existence of a higher power, thereby opening up another penetrating question that digs into the crux of existence.

This is what Morris does best: He engages profound ideas in fresh ways while cranking out gritty roots rock that clangs and rolls to a wicked groove. It's one of the reasons his work has garnered acclaim from critics and from such high-profile supporters as John Prine, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle.

"I've always been fascinated by religious terminology and the language of the writing that's been passed down," Morris says. "In a way, I wanted Zeke to be a gospel album. But I didn't want to be preaching it; I wanted to be feeling it. That's why the terminology keeps coming up. I think it's something we all think about in different ways. Leonard Cohen said that if you don't want to talk about God, then you have to find another word for it."

Morris' distinction between preaching and feeling is an important one. Too often, those performing songs about religion these days may be washed in the blood, but their music doesn't have much relation to the flesh or the stuff of daily life. A scruffy spiritualist, Morris is far removed from the clean-cut confines of contemporary Christian music--thus he's able to match his heady wordplay with music that is lustfully physical.

Zeke and the Wheel has its moments of tenderness: "Maybe the Soul," the song quoted above, is a wistful ballad set to a comely acoustic melody that fits the reflectiveness of the lyrics, while "Lest We All Lose" is a sweet soul swayer worthy of Sam Cooke or the Holmes Brothers. But most of the album moves to earthy, soulful grooves that are roughed up by the raucous interplay of guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Hector Qirko.

By encompassing both debauchery and deliverance, the Knoxville resident plumbs the Beat-rock continuum, putting a Southern spin on the musings of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Bob Neuwirth, and Tom Waits. Like those artists, Morris is a high-wire gambler who stretches for something original and accepts the risks involved in breaking pat formulas. Even though Zeke doesn't quite capture the mad glory of Morris' best stage performances, the album nonetheless bursts with the distinctive sound of a clever artist plowing his own path.

The genesis of Zeke and the Wheel comes from Morris' long-running interest in the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel encouraged the Jews exiled into Babylon in the sixth century B.C. to return to a life of godliness and faith.

"There's a line in an old folk song about how Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air," Morris says. "To me, that image is just crackling. I love the phraseology of it. It's a line that had a shapeliness to it, like [Allen] Ginsberg used to say."

Morris has employed the Ezekiel theme in his career before. He once led a band called Zeke Maurice and the Zen Marauders, as well as one called Zeke and the Wheel. He says he's been working for years on a series of songs involving Zeke and other biblical figures--Zeke shows up in two songs on the new album, while a love song on the collection is titled "She Sings Me Songs of Solomon."

When Morris started making the record, he had a tightly conceived idea of how the songs would be structured. "Then we recorded it in a flourish," he says with a laugh. "Nine of the 12 songs were first takes. It was really ideal for the creative process."

The singer-songwriter praises producer R.S. Field for letting him record the songs live, with all of the instruments gathered in one room where the musicians could interact. To do so, they set up in Field's basement studio. "Doing it that way made it totally relaxed," Morris says. "We had a real feeling of playing the songs together instead of the sterile feeling you get in a real studio. Even a really great studio can zap the life out of you."

Morris, a published poet, also worked some spoken-word verse into his songs, including an entire poem that shows up in the middle of "She Sings Me Songs of Solomon." The song "Distillery" contains another flight of verse as well. Amid the clanging cacophony of the two guitarists, Morris takes off on a jag that asks about turning water into wine. Since water was nearly undrinkable in biblical times, Morris says, why didn't Jesus "turn it into good drinking water?" He pauses for a few beats, letting the band rock, then interjects drolly, "I guess he did."

The use of spoken verse is important to Morris. "I wanted this album to move into this area of poetics that I felt my live show had moved into," he says. "Live, I'll make up stuff that's totally improvisational. I've found that doing that really gets the band pumping, because it allows them to improvise too. They all have big ears, and they really play off each other well, but they still care about the song and stay with it."

As a poet, Morris knows he's likely to reach more people from the stage and from recordings than on the written page. "We're living in a time when words have jumped off the page and into the air," he says. "That's an old tradition, though; that's Homer. One of the things the Beat Poets did was bring back that oral thing. Those guys worked with jazz, because that was the music they listened to. Then Dylan came, and he worked with the music that was contemporary to him."

Morris sees himself as part of that tradition. "I'm not sure what I'm bringing to it," he says. "But part of it, I think, is to be open to the idea of what your spirituality is. It's out there to be dealt with."

After talking to the people who come to his shows, he's become convinced that there's an enormous interest in spiritual issues these days. "We're living in an amazing time," he says. "Technology is racing ahead, yet there's this spirituality that's been dormant that's bursting at the seams of society. There's something afoot."

That said, he's not interested in telling people what they should believe. But he does hope to shine a little light in that direction. "The object of art is to point to 'it,' " he says. "The art isn't the 'it.' The 'it' is what you're pointing toward."

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