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The ‘greatest unknown songwriter in the country’ comes to Columbia

R.B. Morris
R.B. Morris

Songwriting and performing isn’t R.B. Morris’s only gig.

Morris has written books – he’s currently working on one about the late Ali Akbar, a South Carolina native who was an influential artist in Morris’s hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. He is a published poet and playwright and has even done a little acting.

But the songwriting thing: While it might be hard to say whether it’s even his main endeavor, he is awfully good at it – good enough that he has been a favorite of Americana and folk luminaries since the 1990s. John Prine and Marianne Faithfull have cut his songs, and he has been singled out for praise by the likes of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle.

“R.B. Morris is the greatest unknown songwriter in the country,” Williams has said.

Actually, Morris isn’t altogether unknown here in South Carolina. He has played house concerts in Columbia. And Spartanburg singer-songwriter Fayssoux McLean (she sang back-up with Emmylou Harris in the 1970s) recorded his song “Hell on a Poor Boy” on her 2014 release “I Can’t Wait.”

Morris’s longtime musical partner, the acclaimed guitarist Hector Qirko, relocated several years ago from Knoxville to Charleston, where he’s a professor at the College of Charleston.

Qirko will be joining Morris for his show June 19 at Conundrum Music Hall in West Columbia.

“He and I have rambled around and played music together all over the U.S. and Europe, too, off and on for decades,” Morris said. “There are certain songs I’ve written that I pretty much only play with him because of the special thing he brings to them. The last few years, we’ve only been able to get together infrequently, so this is a special occasion for us.”

Morris describes his multifront career as “a lifetime avoiding careers.”

Then again, his creative pursuits do tend to complement, even support, one another. “Poetry and songwriting are closely linked, of course, and for me, one just runs into the other,” he said.

He mentioned Prine, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as songwriting influences. Like those writers, Morris is a thoughtful observer with a big imagination. He finds profound meaning in everyday circumstances while making big ideas relatable. He’s comfortable within conventional song structures – but is also known for breaking boundaries with what one reviewer called his “spoken-word reveries.”

Morris finds a great metaphor in “Old Copper Penny.” He sings, “I know I’m not silver, I know I’m not gold / But I’m good luck to whoever holds an old copper penny like me.”

In “Roy,” Morris provides a character sketch of a fellow who invites him to “drink some this morning” and talks about how he “used to know Donnie Gibson before he was a star.”

Morris is known as a master lyricist, but he’s also an impressive tunesmith with a diverse range. His recordings include spare acoustic ballads, as well as bluesy, electric guitar-infused rock ’n’ roll – perhaps it’s a duality that mirrors Morris’s path in life.

“Every time something starts clicking in one medium I slide over to another or some different direction, or so it seems,” he said. “I believe artists pursue various mediums because they love them so much. That love and appreciation pulls you into it and becomes an aspiration. Simple as that. Before you know it, it’s a way of life and your means of growing and evolving.”

If you go: R.B. Morris, Friday, June 12, at Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St., West Columbia. With guest Hector Qirko and Jelly Roll and Delicious Dish. 7 p.m.; doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets, $15 in advance; $18 at the door. www.conundrum.us.

Baker Maultsby, Special to Go Columbia