Storytelling goes way back in these mountains, as an oral tradition common to both the indigenous population and the sometimes equally non-literate Europeans who evicted them. The Europeans, of course, brought along the notion of front porches and rocking chairs, which contributed immeasurably to the ambiance of the storytelling milieu.
Songwriter and tale-spinner Michael Reno Harrell grew up steeped in the traditions Southern Appalachian culture — coming, he claims, from a family that has lived here since these ancient mountains were just starting out. Best known for his music, the eastern Tennessee native has gradually expanded introductions to his songs until they have taken on a life of their own. His latest audio release, Grit and Wit (Dancing Bear Records, 2004), is a double CD of uproarious yarns, recorded live.
The longest track runs on for more than 45 minutes, and a couple of others come close to half that length. “The intros have gotten a lot longer,” Harrell acknowledges. “Most of my shows are concerts, anyway, and I tell a lot of stories in my shows.” The whole is leavened with Harrell’s well-practiced guitar licks and easy-on-the-ear vocals.
Harrell is an old pro at this storytelling business, and he knows how to keep an audience in suspense as a story burns down to its often-alarming conclusion. But, then, this is a man who remembers when cherry bombs were cherry bombs, not the pale imitation sold today. And among his Southern “suggestions” is that, when fishing, it’s best to cast downstream — “after you light the fuse.”
Asked how far back he started playing music, Harrell replies, “I’ve got a 1963 Martin D-28 [guitar] that I bought new. I’d been playing about six months or a year when I got that.
“I started in the folk scare of the ’60s,” he explains. “I played in folk trios and bluegrass bands most of my early career.” But for all his deep Southern roots, he says, it took a visitor from up north to introduce him to the work of bluegrass great Bill Monroe — until then, “I didn’t know who he was.
“I was real lucky. A girl moved to my hometown — Morristown, Tennessee — from New York City, and brought with her a whole stack of Vanguard and Folkways records, and introduced me to Woody Guthrie and everything like that.”
Later, Harrell played with David Holt in the Pigeon River String Ticklers. “That was David’s first trip east, along about 1969. I probably met him at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.”
The muse led Harrell to Nashville, where he became a country music staff songwriter. Since 1990, he’s been based in Charlotte. “I moved there from Nashville and quit playing for almost five years, didn’t even play at home,” he says. “Then I eased back into it and started writing again.”
The stories on Grit and Wit are rich with childhood memories. From the Warm Morning woodstove — misnamed because it was never warm in the morning — to his Mama’s quilts to family picnics and barn signs, Harrell populates his world with colorful and quirky characters. And for all their old-timey quality, the stories are infused with modern sensibilities, as when he and his wife (who’s also his manager) discuss the potential view from Rock City. Seven states? Nah, she opines; if everyone quit driving and burning fossil fuels for a couple of weeks, they’ll be able to see five — maybe.
Harrell has just released a concert DVD, Hey Y’all, that was recorded at Cleveland Community College in Shelby and includes many of his favorite stories and songs. And he’s working on a new album. “It’s gonna have some surprises in it,” he promises. “You’ll probably see a different side than you’ve seen.”
Michael Reno Harrell will appear at the Purple Onion Cafe and Coffee House in Saluda (16 Main St.) Saturday, March 12 at 8 p.m. For more information, call (828) 749-1179.