Knoxville poet laureate soothes listeners at Muddy Creek Music Hall

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RB Morris (right) and Hector Qirko pluck a poetic selection of folk songs at historic music hall.

by Spencer KM Brown

RB Morris took the stage with a beer in hand and a country boy’s charm, the pale lights illuminating a few more bottles set on the stool behind him. He swung the strap of his vintage, tobacco-fade guitar over his head then humbly and coolly slid into his popular opening song, “Old Copper Penny.” Morris picked the strings and sang as if to a packed house, though the crowd barely filled the few tables up front by the stage, setting the tone for a soothing night of folk and country.

It’s the last stop on RB Morris’ tour which began in January. Muddy Creek opened its doors in 2011 in a renovated historical building, once a working grist mill, tucked away in the wooded outskirts of Winston-Salem in Bethania. With only a few years of bluegrass, country, folk and Americana shows under their belt, they’ve booked award-winning and legendary musicians such as Albert Lee, John Gorka, Jim Avett and Don Flemons.

Based out of his hometown in Knoxville, Tenn., RB Morris has produced six studio albums and extensively toured both America and Europe, but there’s a literary element to his live show that veers away from the country paradigm. Mid-set, Morris let his guitar hang loose on his shoulder and began reciting the title poem from one of his poetry collections, The Mockingbird Poems.

Morris has published three volumes of poetry to date; Mockingbird, probably his most successful, earned a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2013. He wrote and produced a short film in the mid-1980s about the life of writer James Agee titled The Man Who Lives Here is Loony, a story he brought it to the live stage in 2016. In 2009, Morris was named Knoxville’s first-ever poet laureate.

He calls it “Appalachian beat poetry,” this blend of storytelling and lyricism, bringing to mind Leonard Cohen or Bonnie “Prince” Billy, delivered in a voice like Clapton. A storyteller at heart, Morris gave the backstory behind his lyrics, while also filling pauses between songs with tales of the small towns of Appalachia and his time touring in Europe.

Hector Qirko, a guitarist from Johnson City, Tenn., joined Morris for the night. Qirko has performed on two of Morris’ albums while also heading up his main project the Hector Qirko Band. Qirko provided ambient lead guitar behind Morris’ acoustic picking, and the road-tested duo proved smoothly compatible on stage, nailing harmonies in perfect syncopation and picking up on each other’s subtle cues.

Halfway through the two-hour set, Morris paid homage to the country and folk idols we lost this past year, playing a song he wrote in tribute to Merle Haggard and reciting Leonard Cohen’s “Paper Thin Hotel” in a touching monologue.

While the tone of the evening was calming and soothing for the seated crowd, Morris knew when to pick up the mood and got feet tapping and the crowd singing along to his songs “Distillery” and “Hell On a Poor Boy.” A melodic and poetic break from the bustle of life, Morris and Qirko gave pause to the crowd, which then responded with happy cheers and a standing ovation.

Towards the end of the show, Morris took a beer in his hand, announcing, “We need a good drinking song, ya’ll,” and let his fingers pick at the strings as hands clapped in rhythm. Morris let his voice bellow through the hall, calling forth the song of the mountains with every note.