Grammy winner Lucinda Williams once called RB Morris "the greatest unknown songwriter in the country." Maybe he is. But in Knoxville and at the University of Tennessee, he’s one of our own and we know him well.
Morris has been the UT Libraries’ Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence since 2004, but this is his final semester on campus.
Morris, who grew up in Knoxville, is widely known for writing songs, poetry, prose, and plays and for singing and playing his guitar. People have tried all sorts of ways to describe his music, calling it a blend of country, blues, gospel and rock with influences from beatniks to writers such as James Joyce and Arthur Rimbaud.
Morris collaborated with Williams, Steve Earle and John Prine on his debut CD "Take That Ride" in 1997. "I think I’ve always performed, as far back as I can remember," Morris said. "I sang in church and school as a child. But through my teenage years I became focused on poetry and songwriting as an ultimate form of expression."
"For me, it is the soul’s work. I might have had a choice in it at some point, but I kind of doubt that too."
Morris organizes the Writers in the Library series, and he has invited songwriters along with poets and prose writers to read their work at UT.
"RB was selected because of his creativity and reputation. He is unique in his talent as a songwriter, poet, playwright and musician. He employs many mediums to express himself," said Barbara Dewey, dean of UT Libraries.
Morris is proving that songwriting—like poetry and other creative writing—has a place in academia. "It has a long tradition, older than the printing press, going back to Homer," he said.
The other part of Morris’ job is to write. And Morris has accomplished much while at UT.
"Early Fires," a single-volume collection of three earlier books of poetry, was published last year by Iris Press. A new book of poetry called "Keeping the Bees Employed" will go to press soon. His newest release, "Empire," contains five new songs, and Morris has recently been back in the recording studio.
He has also kept up with performing — traveling across the country, touring Europe and playing at Bonnaroo.
Known by many in Knoxville for his promotion of Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Agee who once lived in Fort Sanders, Morris wrote a one-man play about Agee called "The Man Who Lives Here is Loony." He played the part of Agee at the UT Agee Celebration in 2005. He has also worked diligently on the James Agee Park project in the Fort.
"I consider all this to be art, and all of it to be an extension of my own personal vision as well as a vision for the city," he said.
RB Morris lives in Knoxville with his wife, Karly. When his UT residency is over, he plans to tour the UK and then take a sabbatical in San Francisco.