R.B. Morris and Marshall Chapman at the Laurel Theater

Marshall Chapman, R.B. Morris, Laurel Theater, Knoxville, January 21, 2011

Suddenly Knoxville is doing what it often does: offering so many wonderful (or even amazing) concerts that a person can’t make them all. I’ve always thought it was feast or famine in Knoxville. It would seem we would wait months for a concert that I was excited about and all of a sudden too many to attend (or afford) would be announced. This has been compounded in recent years with the advent of selling tickets months in advance of the actual concert.

R.B. Morris, Laurel Theater, Knoxville, January 21, 2011

This weekend was so packed with music there was no way to take it all in. I really wanted to hear Jenna and the Accidentals at the Crown and Goose (Friday and Saturday night), but I had to catch Marshall Chapman while she was in town (Friday night) and she offered the bonus of R.B. Morris who is always great to see. Saturday night two other offerings conflicted with Jenna: The Black Lillies CD release party at the Bijou, for which we’d had tickets for ages, and Fred Eaglesmith at the Shed in Maryville. The pain of missing the Shed show was eased by the fact that I got to see him for about thirty minutes at WDVX on Saturday afternoon and also by the fact that I find it very difficult to get in my car and drive to hear music when there is so much within walking distance.

Marshall Chapman, Laurel Theater, Knoxville, January 21, 2011

So, the musical weekend started Friday night at the wonderful Laurel Theater located in the Fort Sanders section of downtown. Honestly, even though it is only about a mile from my home, I’ll confess: I drove. I know, I know. Still, it was twenty-something degrees and the wind was howling. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. When America falls because of its gasoline addiction, that .02 of a gallon will be on my head. I’m sorry, my fellow Americans.

R.B. Morris, Laurel Theater, Knoxville, Janaury 21, 2011

The house was packed with people who seemed to appreciate both artists and may who knew each artist’s catalogue. Both R.B. and Marshall have acted (she plays Gwyneth Paltrow’s manager in the current release Country Strong), published books, recorded and written many songs. The evening was heavy on the songs, but also included readings from each of them. She read from her book They Came to Nashville which includes stories of various country music stars and their adventures on first arriving in Nashville. Her description of pursuing Willie Nelson for an interview in the book was priceless. R.B. read from his current collection of poetry, Keeping the Bees Employed which is only available for purchase through his website. Each of them also have an album out from which they played several songs. Marshall’s latest is Big Lonesome and R.B.’s is Spies, Lies and Burning Eyes, also available at his website.

Marshall Chapman reads from They Came to Nashville, Laurel Theater, Knoxville

Each of the writers has a distinctive style, but as they swapped songs back and forth, the constant theme of the evening was the capacity of each to relay larger truths in stories and songs about common events. In her song “Call the Lamas” is both hilarious and provocative. Other highlights included Sick Of Myself and Riding With Willie. She’s been described as a “southern Patty Smith” and that’s pretty understandable when you see her in concert with her rock and roll posturing, lips pouted, eyes defiant and music set firmly on the edge. She has enjoyed considerable success for someone who doesn’t quite fit the pre-measured boxes into which we place popular music in these days. Her songs have been recorded by such artists as Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Sawyer Brown, John Hiatt and Joe Cocker among many others.

R.B. Morris reads from Keeping the Bees Employed, Laurel Theater, Knoxville
R.B. has been recorded by John Prine. To hear him tell it, that is the only cover he’s gotten. This is something I have a hard time understanding. So many of his songs are incredibly well-crafted and some of them are stunning displays of intellectual and musical art. He did Empire on Friday night and that song gives me chills every time I hear it. Its soaring, melodic elegy for a culture in decline is as provocative as any anthematic song you’ll encounter. If you have nothing by R. B., that link gives you a very good place to start. That song and City, which was clearly written about Knoxville and conjures images of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem are as good a pair of songs as virtually any songwriter could ever hope to have to his or her credit.
The audience for the show filled the Laurel Theater and was filled with star power of its own. Authors Jean McDonald, Fred Brown, Don Williams and Marilyn Kallet, musicians Jay Manneschmidt and Maggie Longmire, local and national music impresario Ashley Capps as well as local public servants new city councilman Charles Thomas, municipal judge John Rosson and Madeline Rogero (who R.B. introduced as Knoxville’s next mayor). I was fortunate they let me in the door.
R.B. sings a final song, Laurel Theater, Knoxville, January 21, 2011
In the end, a very appreciative crowd and two very talented friends swapping songs made for a very happy evening in Fort Sanders. To see who’s coming to the Laurel Theater next you can find the listing on the Jubilee Arts web site. It’s a great series in a great venue.