R. B. Morris- Going Back to the Sky review

R. B. Morris Going Back to the Sky RBMorris.com

Almost half a lifetime ago, back in the early days of No Depression and clandestine, after-work CD crate searching, I tripped across R. B. Morris’ debut album. I imagine the (if the stories told years later were true) creepy owner of the store suggested the album to me, maybe played a track or two, or maybe I simply recognized the CD cover from a magazine ad, most likely No Depression, and asked him to slap it on.

Whatever the reason, I know I walked out with …take that ride…, and it became a foundational staple within my burgeoning collection of roots, Americana, alt.country (or whatever the hell we were calling it that month) music.

Released in 1997 on John Prine’s Oh Boy label, the album contained a depth few other albums encountered contained. Truthfully, almost every album purchased in those days became engrained—I didn’t have many dollars for free-spending, so the albums I purchased got played over and over, weaving their way into my brain and soul. The Bottle Rockets’ first few. Wilco’s Being There and Son Volt’s Straightaways, both heard before uncovering Uncle Tupelo.Every early album from Lucinda Williams. Marty Stuart’s Love and Luck and Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’. Those were the days, right?

But, with …take that ride…, it was special, true poetry set to music, taking us to places we didn’t previously comprehend. Even the most ‘straight-forward’ songs—“They Say There’s A Time,” perhaps, as beautifully affecting love homage as has been written—were elevated. Sure, Dylanesque influences weren’t entirely hidden, but that didn’t lessen the impact of “Riding’ With O’Hanlon” or “Hell on a Poor Boy.”  Morris’s grinding take of “The Ballad of Thunder Road” has never been improved upon. My favourite song on the album comes near its conclusion; “Bottom of the Big Black Hull” foretold these early years of the next century as only a perceptive singer-songwriter could.

It was also likely my introduction to the lead guitar flair of future Superlative Kenny Vaughn, and having label owner John Prine guest on the plaintive “Roy” set a pretty high bar.

So impactful was …take that ride… on me, that subsequent albums such as Zeke and the Wheel (in retrospect, as strong as a follow-up as possible) and Spies Lies and Burning Eyes were given short shrift; I recall telling an friend that I didn’t need another R. B. Morris album as I already had the best he could ever achieve.

Gosh, I was an idiot.

Slow forward to 2020, and Knoxville’s Poet Laureate of 2016-2018 has yet another new album of incredible music on offer. Released earlier in the year, it is receiving a renewed promo push which brought Going Back to the Sky to my attention this week. And thank goodness it has because I may have arrogantly again passed by a collection of music that few could envision.

Reading the credit notes of …take that ride…today, one is struck by the names featured. Going Back to the Sky co-producer Bo Ramsey plays and sings on a few songs, and Lucinda is in the vocal chorus of the album’s closing number. Also featured: Dave Jacques, Paul Griffith, Jamie Hartford, Steve Conn, Al Kooper, and a bunch of other folks who became staples in my Americana journey. Without a doubt, that album was a great place to start, but a damn stupid place to stop. I certainly have some gaps to fill.

Speaking of …take that ride… one final time, Morris’ liner notes to that incredible album read, in part, “But it also comes out of where you’re from, as well as the going and the getting’ there. And what you come to see is that it’s the same road you’ve always been taking.” To me, that is a pretty fine epitaph for a songwriter, no matter where in their career they come to the realization.

500 words in…I likely should have got to the album under consideration a few hundred words ago.

Going Back to the Sky opens with simple guitar and harmonica notes from Bo Ramsey and Mickey Raphael, palate cleansing for the coming 45-minute journey. And those liner notes from his debut come to mind as Morris sings, in the album lead song “Red Sky,” “I’m beginning to wonder if you can get there from here.” Daniel Kimbro (bass) brings a bit of a jazz feel to the album’s early songs, working with drummer Hunter Deacon, on both “Red Sky” and “Me and My Wife Ruth.” Greg Horne’s guitars keep the feel decidedly within the roots fold, as does the selective addition of David Mayfield’s fiddle and Ramsey’s electric guitar.

Less than eight minutes in, we know where we are going, and the journey is just beginning. By coincidence, a television quote heard the night before comes to mind: it isn’t the destination that matters, it is the companions on the journey that does. I have the feeling Morris and Ramsey would agree: the sidemen get full credit for the atmosphere created herein. Horne’s pedal steel deserves top-billing on the nostalgic “A Missouri River Hat Blowing Incident,” and Kimbro, Ramsey, and Raphael all get songwriting credits for a trio of brief instrumental interludes.

A funereal, near-death, winter road journey is captured within “Montana Moon, while a trek of a different tact is memorialized in “Six Black Horses and a 72 Oz. Steak.” Mixing his approach to the songs, Morris croons within “Once in a Blue Moon,” while the transient troubadour visits during “Under the Cigar Trees.” With pleasure, we hear a bit o’ Prine within “That’s the Way I Do,” maybe a taste of Guy Clark in “Walking Song” and “Old Copper Penny,” an older song previously released. Welcoming are these touches, intentional or not.

Mention R. B. Morris to a dozen or a hundred people on the street, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. That’s okay—we know the best aren’t always going to be household names.

Similarly, we can’t hold an artist frozen in the past, beholden to our first impression.

I’m glad I was given the chance this month to re-evaluate a favoured artist. I made a grievous error pigeonholing Morris by a single, if incredible, album. As I wrote earlier, time to catch up. Going Back to the Sky is an excellent place to begin again.

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