The Cornbred Blues Band show on December 13 at Preservation Pub will be a very important one for Knoxville singer/songwriter/all-around musical eccentric Jon “Cornbred” Worley. Inasmuch as it will be his best opportunity to repay certain members of the West family clan—proprietors of Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall and Oodles—for the kindness of bailing him out of Knox County Jail.
It was a regrettable incident that landed him there the night of November 8, a sad case of mistaken identity—this according to Worley himself—that happened in the wake of a failed sexual liaison, as he wandered the dead streets of Fort Sanders at an hour when most good and reasonable people are at home smoking dope in the cozy privacy of their own boudoir.
“I can’t talk about it too much ‘cause the case is still pending,” Worley croaks in that distinctive voice of his, the one that sounds like 1970s TV/radio personality Wolfman Jack in the throes of a serious codeine bender. “Put it this way—I’m a scruffy hillbilly who got singled out because I was wearing too nice a coat. You know, random white-boy shit…”
But such is his lot. Because if the truth be known, the garrulous, genial manner and perpetually crooked smile notwithstanding, it is not an easy thing Being Jon Worley.
Because while many of you may know Jon Worley, you probably do not know much about Jon Worley. At least, not much more than that which is mostly self-evident—that he is the backwater philosopher-sage-turned-blues-harpist acid burnout son of a twice-institutionalized Vietnam veteran, the ubiquitous and weirdly magnetic local barfly and throwback classic Rawker with the trademark creaking-hinge voice, a singular gift of gab, and a face that only a mother could love.
To wit: Born on a military base in Charleston, S.C. some 36 years ago, JW was the first-born son of Larry Dan Worley, a staff sergeant cargo master in the U.S. Air Force who came into the service “at the ass-end of Vietnam”, touring a handful of stateside military installations after a couple of tours in the war. One of his last stops before civilian life was at a base in Alaska. Working a moonlight job to pay the bills and eating Benzedrine by the handful to keep his wearied form animate through the long days, Larry John had a… spell while he was stationed in the Last Frontier, a little detour-from-reality-cum-religious-epiphany that led him AWOL, then through a handful of mental institutions and into a secret government lithium trial, eventually resulting in a psychiatric discharge and a don’t-let-door-hit-you-in-the-ass-on-the-way-the-f#$%-out from Uncle Sam.
“He suffered a disjunctive episode, as we say in the psychiatric realm,” Worley explains. “He went on leave to Kodiak Island with an Inuit guide. And a Kodiak bear walked up and said to him, ‘I’m your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and you have a job to do.
“His mistake was listening to the fucking bear.”
All of which gives us a taste—and believe me when I say that it is only a taste, the tip of a very large and wretchedly misshapen iceberg—of the weird and malignant forces that shaped Jon Worley as the hard-drinking out-of-left-field eccentric he is today.
Suffice to say that by the time he turned 16, Worley had seen the inside of both jail and mental institution a couple of times himself, dropped out of school and run away to the Big Easy, spent a black week in a three-by-nine New Orleans jail cell straight out of some Victorian Gothic nightmare…
Upon wending his way back home, he picked up a GED and entered Morristown’s Walters State Community College, spent four years getting a two-year associate’s degree in Philosophy because, “I was a drop-out, and they made me take every remedial course under the sun.”
He absorbed Camus and Kierkegaard, read voraciously, found work at a homeless shelter, and then as an occupational therapist for a company that serviced psychiatric homes. He also acquired a wife—though they later divorced—in the person of the daughter of his head philosophy professor at Walters State.
He became a musician very abruptly, on the occasion of his 18th birthday. “I ate three hits of triple-dipped 225 Hawaiian Rosewood government-grade LSD,” he recalls. “I literally had a Carlos Castaneda magic mogwai kind of experience. I had a vision.
“We were moving out of this house, and the only thing left in the house was this baby grand piano. And I sat down and started playing the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ Thing is, I play piano now, and I still can’t play ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ I didn’t play any instruments then, but I sat down and started playing that music like a fish f#$%ing swims.
“I had a vision while I was playing, of an old black man and an old white man standing behind me. And one of them says, ‘Boy, you got a job to do.’ And the other one says, ‘Yeah, but you better shut your mouth, or they’re gonna kill you.’”
Worley started playing guitar and then piano, taking regular sojourns down Highway 81 to Knoxville to make the rounds at coffee houses, poetry slams and open mic nights. And then came a harmonica, which Worley picked up because “my hands were too small to do everything I wanted on guitar.”
But the defining moment in Worley’s musical education came from an unexpected quarter, a British expatriate building superintendent who also happened to be a crossharp blues fanatic. “He was our apartment manager, and he sprayed for bugs in my wife’s panty drawer one too many times,” Worley says.
“I called him out on it, had a come-to-Jesus moment with him, and we ended up becoming really good friends. He taught me how to play crossharp. And once I figured out the Blues, it set my soul free. It was like learning an ancient language, one that I could suddenly speak fluently.”
Now, it is important to understand this: The fact that Jon Worley is not a wholly… well-adjusted individual is a fact not lost on Jon Worley himself. “I have to meditate, sometimes six hours a day—otherwise I’ll just go off and get white-girl wasted,” he says.
“This is the only profession—being a musician—that I can do where I can be as crazy as I am and get away with it. Sometimes, when I’m outside, I have to ghost that shit, be ninja about it. Because you can’t go on a rant at the end of the bar in Applebee’s in Morristown. You’ll go to jail; they’ll get out the pitchforks and torches and shit.”
And that speaks volumes about why Jon Worley cuts such a strange and—whether you love him or hate him—compelling figure when he gets on a stage, wailing on his harmonica or hunkered over his keys, chanting into a mic like some bastard hillbilly spawn of Edgar Winter or Leon Russell…
“I’ve worked at homeless shelter, done convalescent care for the mentally ill,” Worley says. “But now I figure that I could help a few people out at a time, doing something like that. Or I can set up on a stage, ride that mic and I can minister that way.
“Because playing the Blues, to me, is like saying a prayer. It’s a salve for your soul. Me being able to play in front of people is me helping myself, taking all the hate and abuse of my previous life and turning it into something that I can heal myself with, and hopefully other people, too, by encouraging them to be free.
“People say they need Jesus. What they need is the Blues.”
Toward that end, he formed the Cornbred Blues Band in 2005, a full-time band that has since evolved into a more fluid project featuring a shifting cast of semi-regulars and sidemen, because, Worley says, “I couldn’t find anybody as crazy as me to go on the road.”
As a musician—or a “mojician,” as he likes to say—Jon Worley doesn’t make any claims on greatness. What he does claim to be—and rightfully so—is inimitable. “I’m not saying I’m the best musician, ‘cause I’m not,” he says. “I know my ass from apple butter. But what I have is a flavor.
And much of that uniqueness derives from his voice, that guttural raspy thing that seems to emanate from somewhere in the murky, nicotine-scarred depths of his sunken chest. “It’s ‘river,’” Worley says. “I have a river accent. When I decided a long time ago to let my freak flag fly, I didn’t have this accent yet. I repressed it.
“It’s a sound that comes from Mississippi and runs through all the river systems of America, with a lot of regional flavors.”
And with the voice, there is an attendant verbosity, a free-flowing sense of sound and speech and a distinctive grasp of dialect and vocabulary that plays out in the form of epic, lyrically dense songs. “I have four-minute songs that have over 1,400 words,” JW says.
“I play my vocals like a jazz musician. I am able to lucidly come up with words and syllables and concepts on the fly. You may hear the same song at two different shows, with two different sets of lyrics. Because I like that space between improvisation and tradition.”
With his legal issues pending, Worley is grounded, maybe for some time to come. During better times, he hits the road, for weeks and even months at a clip, sometimes as a solo harpist and sometimes, “with a bunch of kids I kidnap from wherever I can find ‘em.”
So now he is concentrating instead on mustering one of his infrequent studio releases; he has seven songs in the can, which he is trying to color with some additional vocals and horns, as well as some lead work from Black Lillies guitar wizard Tom Pryor.
“There are a couple of heavy hitters in there,” Worley says of the material. “A couple of protest songs, some real autobiographical stuff. And there’s some real hook-y stuff, some real people-chanting-in-a-stadium type shit. I want to drop it for immediate digital distribution, then push it and tour it.”
Which is perhaps where Jon Worley is at his best. Because for all of his tribulations as a poor white boy living in rural East Tennessee, he is very much an ambassador of Knoxville. And especially of its music scene, which has nurtured him, in its own gruff kind of way, since he was a teenage dropout playing coffee shops for dollars with a harmonica and a roadworn acoustic guitar.
“I’ve played 100 shows a year, from New York to New Orleans, and I’ve run into musicians from Knoxville everywhere I go,” Worley enthuses. “Some of them are people I played open mics with six or seven years ago. There’s a lot of oppression here—cultural, religious, sexual, you name it.
“And where there is oppression, the human spirit will seek to assert itself. That’s what music is. I know it’s kept me real. It’s kept me alive.”
Jon Worley and the Cornbred Blues Band will play Preservation Pub Saturday, Dec. 13 at 10 p.m. with Roman Reese and the Cardinal Sins.