By Collin Kelley
Kodac Harrison – musician, songwriter, poet, artist and emcee – embodies the definition of a “renaissance man.” The Georgia native and 25-year resident of Decatur became synonymous with Intown’s indie music and poetry scene long before the rest of the country caught on.
After a raft of high-profile gigs (sharing the stage with Patti Smith, Marianne Faithfull, Gregg Allman, Warren Zevon, Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou and performing for President Jimmy Carter) and a clutch of awards, Harrison isn’t one to rest on his laurels. He’s just released his 17th album, The Lucky One, and the audiobook version of his 2013 debut collection of poetry and lyrics, The Turtle and The Moon. The notoriously hard-to-impress Jeff Clark at Stomp and Stammer magazine said the new album “encapsulates Harrison at his poetic best.”
Harrison dedicated The Lucky One, which features studio and live versions of new and old songs, to all the musicians and singers he has recorded and performed with over his 40-plus year career.
He name-checks many of those who have made the new projects possible, including Senate Records and Joey Stuckey, who produced the audio book; his producers and recording engineers, Sean O’Rourke, Jody Worrell and Rodney Mills in Atlanta; longtime art director Mary Alice Cantrell; and his long association with singer Kristin Markiton, who provides backing vocals on a number of the tracks.
The Lucky One is also a watershed for Harrison and his career as a musician. An essential tremor has made it difficult for him to play guitar – something he has done everyday for 30 years.
“A combination of meds and alcohol will steady my hand enough to play live,” he laughs, “but I am more comfortable these days with poetry and spoken word.”
As host of the Java Monkey Speaks poetry open mic every Sunday night for a staggering 14 years, Harrison has won new audiences and Creative Loafing’s “best spoken word performer” award countless times. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Harrison has held the university’s prestigious McEver Chair in Poetry and regularly emcees poetry events, leads workshops and gives reading of his work around the country. He also received a Masters of Business Administration from Tulane.
Harrison laughs about the MBA now. “I went to school to enter the corporate world, got the paper and realized it wasn’t for me.”
While in New Orleans, Harrison honed his guitar and songwriting skills and headed west to California. His first gig was in 1975 in Salinas at a bar called East of Eden, named after famed resident John Steinbeck.
“I got to the gig at East of Eden and someone else was onstage,” he recalls. “They had double-booked for the night, so I had to wait and play the next night. Welcome to show business! I wound up playing there regularly for more than a year.”
Harrison would go on to spend time in Texas, a commune in West Virginia, New York and a stint in the Army. In the 1980s, he decided to plug in and become a rock and roll star, but a near fatal car accident in 1989 made him re-evaluate his career.
“I realized I didn’t need to be a rock and roll star, and decided to go back to my acoustic guitar and move to Decatur,” he says.
His timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Acts like Indigo Girls, Michelle Malone, Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles and Kristen Hall had put Decatur on the musical map and Eddie Owens’ Trackside Tavern was a hotspot to hear these up-and-coming acts.
Harrison became a regular performer at Trackside and later at Owen’s eponymous Eddie’s Attic. As his presence in the indie music scene grew, Harrison also found an audience in Europe – especially Germany – and has made seven tours of the continent in the last couple of decades. Two of the tracks on The Lucky One were recorded during those tours.
In 1997, Harrison began laying the foundation for what is now the blossoming poetry scene in Decatur and Intown. He hosted gigs at Gravity Pub and the Margaret Mitchell House before finally landing at Java Monkey in 2001. It’s been his home-away-from-home ever since.
Fourteen years is a long run for any poetry open mic, but the crowds continue to evolve and grow, especially with the monthly poetry slam that builds a team to compete at the National Poetry Slam. He’s also the chairman of Poetry Atlanta, the nonprofit that promotes poetry and operates a small press, which has published four award-winning anthologies of poets who have featured on the stage.
Harrison is gearing up for a regional tour to promote his latest work, thinking ahead to new projects and is toying with the idea of handing over the reins of Java Monkey Speaks to a new emcee next year, the open mic’s 15th anniversary.
“Fifteen years is a long time to do something almost every Sunday night, but I know I’d miss it,” Harrison says with a grin. “I’m still thinking about it.”
Something tells us that we’ll most likely see Harrison at Java Monkey when the 20th anniversary rolls around.