It’s been some time since we’ve spoken to Morristown hillbilly savant-cum-Knoxville swamp-rock ambassador Jon Worley, in no small part because Worley, until late, had been Missing in Action, hiding out in his Mo-town crib in the throes of an enervating personal malaise and coping with the fallout of family crisis.
It wasn’t until October of 2016, when everyone else was consumed by the festering acrimony and counterfeit adrenaline surges of a singularly putrid political race, that JW re-emerged — more on that in a moment. He’s been a staple performer at our very own Preservation Pub ever since — at least some things are right with the world — often packing in his harmonica and his shopworn acoustic guitar and his miniature Wurlitzer organ at the last minute whenever other, lesser troubadours fail to show.
“I got to a point where I wasn’t positive, and I couldn’t go out and be positive,” says Worley in that distinctive croak of his, a voice that sounds like it came out of nowhere in the depths of a haunted house. “I had to extricate myself for a while. And my mom and dad both got sick at the same time… I had to take care of my family.”
To hear Worley tell it, his lassitude took the form of a sort of long, dark night of the soul, persisting in this instance for the better part of a year. Then, of a sudden, it all came to a head, and ended, through a weird convergence of the aforementioned domestic political unrest and Worley’s own venturing into the world of MMOs, or Massive Multi-Player Online Games.
Worley tells it in his own words: “I started playing this MMO, something to mentally masturbate with. But something started happening, and I started getting to know people in the games. I’m sitting in this myopic little space in Morristown, Tennessee, talking to people from Brazil and Germany, hearing people cuss their wives in Ecuador. It became the social structure I needed. And I got this really global, international perspective on our political situation over here.
“Then, three months before the election cycle, I woke up. I started having nightmares that there was this thing I had to do. It was in me, and it built and built and built. And these conversations I was having started resolving in my head. And I felt this responsibility to the culture to get the f$% back out there.”
Worley began performing again in late October, hitting the small venues and dive bars of East Tennessee with a vengeance, logging more than 40 shows in a span of scarcely three months.
His shows have consisted primarily of either solo performances, with Worley pulling his own one-man-band act, or trios, usually with longtime associate John Colquitt on trombone, and now Crumbsnatchers ace Rylan Bledsoe on drums.
Like always, his idiosyncratic melding of blues, rural and folk traditions with vintage Classic Rawk seems to serve as a sort of musical lingua franca, drawing weirdly mixed crowds, aficionados united by little else other than their affection for Worley’s hypnotic singing drawl and down-home Wurlitzer vamps.
“My shows are probably the only shows anywhere where you can see truck-nut, rolling-coal country kids in the same room with hipster kids, LGBT kids. There’s no separation.
“After the election, it really started to make sense to me. It feels like creating this kind of space is going to be more important than ever in the years to come. I’m not saying I’m going to change the world playing a few songs on stage at Preservation Pub. What I am saying is that any time we can create that kind of space, we should do it.”
JW says he’s rolling a slew of new songs into his mix of Worley standards, including a handful written in recent weeks that he goes so far as to classify as “protest songs.” In all, he describes the newer songs as “thicker, leaner and meaner.”
“It gets back to that Wurlitzer,” he says. “I’ve been playing that organ 13 years now, and it’s such an intimate relationship. I don’t know how to describe it except in a metaphorically sexual way.”
As to the protest songs, he says, “I’m trying to wrap my arms around some of these class issues without inciting a riot. But I like it, because it takes the emphasis away from us just being something that boozy kids do in their spare time with the extra money in their pockets.
“I have some hardcore feelings about the responsibility of an artist. I understand the power of art to educate people and bring people together. I think artists have been trapped in chains of acceptability for far too long. It’s time to start owning this culture, and moving forward. Hell, I might be on the verge of becoming unapologetically polarizing.
“Besides,” Worley adds, with one of his characteristic gap-toothed grins, “there’s nothing like dropping a big truth bomb on a big ol’ roomful of people drinking and sweating in a bar. That’s some truly sexy shit.”
Jon Worley will play Preservation Pub Monday, January 23 at 10 p.m.