At 30 years old, Tulsa, Oklahoma's John Moreland generates the type of accolades and laudatory reactions reserved for the beacons of the singer-songwriter circuit. Recent profiles by the Wall Street Journal, NPR, American Songwriter, No Depression, and PopMatters.com, in addition to Rolling Stone naming Moreland one of 2015’s "10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” have all worked to bring him to the attention of more and more listeners. But no amount of glowing reviews or florid articles - including this one - can communicate just how good Moreland's work is in any way that approaches adequate. A self-identified "lyrics first" songwriter, Moreland's rugged, sandy voice evokes comparisons to Steve Earle. Singing self-reflective tales of heartbreak, sorrow, and occasional redemption over rolling finger-picked acoustic guitar, Moreland's words wield a brand of room-silencing power that could extort tears from a brick.
I guess I got a taste for poison; I've given up on ever being well.
I keep mining the horizon, digging for lies I've yet to tell.
And I wish you were here to softly say my name,
And calm down all the chemicals tearing through my brain.
In support of his superlative new record, High On Tulsa Heat, and in between opening gigs for Jason Isbell, John Moreland made his Pittsburgh debut at the packed Club Cafe on July 31. Asked about the burgeoning admiration, Moreland acknowledged, "It's weird, but I'm getting used to it though. I love hearing that people know the songs, or if I can hear people singing along at shows, or if they tell me a certain song means a lot to them. That's rad, but that's a thing that I never thought about. I just write a song because it made me feel better. If it can do that for somebody else, that rules."
The songs that make up High On Tulsa Heat - a record whose first two words are "Hang me" - carry an emotional gravity that when handled with Moreland's poetic grace, elevate the material beyond the lazy label of "sad" into the rarified air of divine. Regarding his development as a songwriter, Moreland identifies "a linear thing that's been happening. I just think that the biggest change has been that I don't write with an agenda anymore. I used to - you know, ten years ago I knew I really wanted to become a better song-writer and I was working hard at it; doing two or three songs a week. I would sit down and say 'I'm going to write a song about this today.' I don't do that at all any more. I figured out that when I sit down and start writing and just let it flow out that I end up liking those songs a lot better. It helps me feel like I've learned something about myself."
Well I'm the kind of love it hurts to look at, but once I was enough to make you try.
Now I'm underneath the rubble, trying not to feel the trouble,
And you don't care enough for me to cry.
- “You Don’t Care Enough For Me to Cry”
Moreland opened his solo Club Cafe set with the haunting "Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars." After delivering the first verse with closed-eyed intensity, the entranced crowd seemed to inhale as a group and didn't dare release a breath until the end of the song. Fans and friends locked eyes with those around them for a moment, followed by dozens of slight nods and flashes of stealth smirks; all silent signs of accord that indeed, something of unique virtue and quality unfolded before them. That was just the first song.
On solo performances, Moreland said, "I guess I prefer it. I love playing with a band too, but I do think when you play solo it's easier to be dynamic. A band can only get so quiet. When you're by yourself you can really get quiet then get loud again and it's easier to control and make impactful solo. But of course playing with other people is a lot of fun too. I think even if I had a band there's probably half the set that I'd still do solo. I'm never going to play "Blacklist" with a band. There are certain songs that solo is the way I want them to always be presented."
You can find me in the Indian Nation sky.
When it feels like nothing's real and no one's standing on your side,
Just find me in the Indian Nation sky.
- “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars”
Following a few more Tulsa Heat cuts, Moreland delved into his catalog; including that devastating solo version of "Blacklist" he teased prior to the show. These older songs acted as the set's keystone, highlighted by particularly heartfelt renditions of ballads "God's Medicine," and "Break My Heart Sweetly," and the up-tempo tracks "Oh Julia," and "Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore." Yes, his songs present as bleak. But there's such a palpable tenderness to Moreland's presentation and wordplay that even as he sings, "Remember that failure is a part of being alive, I guess I let it take away my pride," the listener's reaction is to smile in a cathartic release, rather than drop in defeat.
Often lost in the epical homages to Moreland's lyrics, is his impressive finger-picking. The mellifluous, hushed stream of plucked melody contributes the ideal delivery system for his words. "It's definitely something that I've worked on and gotten better at in the last few years," Moreland said. "I didn't used to be very good at it, but I would listen to the way Steve Earle would play his stuff - which he learned from Townes Van Zandt. I'd go back to Mississippi John Hurt and listen to him play. I always wanted to figure out how to do it. I understood the mechanics of it; you're alternating bass notes with your thumb and you're picking the melody with your other fingers. But it was physically hard to make my fingers do that. Four or five years ago I decided screw this - I'm just going to learn how to do this right. And every time I picked up a guitar I would think, 'No picks, I'm going to make myself learn how to play with my fingers.' I've gotten to the point where I'm pretty comfortable with it now."
I guess by now I'm supposed to be a man.
They said I'd find some kind of freedom when I forgot I had a say.
But my grandmother still gives me ten bucks on my birthday,
And she told me that sleep was god's medicine.
And you're gonna die someday.
So life, take all your terror and surrender to the true.
It's times like these I forget why I quit loving you.
- “God’s Medicine”
Moreland's increasing profile both allows him to play every corner of the country, as well as befriend, and play with scene vets he looks up to. Asked what he's learned from the likes of, current and past tour-mate, Jason Isbell, Moreland replied, "Just the level of professionalism is always cool to see. I'm so used to just this grassroots thing. The way I've toured up until now has been literally just drive around and play shows. It's not any more complicated than that. But that kind of affords me this relaxed thing; I'll show up whenever, I don't really care if we sound-check. But touring with guys like that, it seems to me, coming from the outside, that it's run with military precision." He added, "Just the way people like Jason or Ben Nichols from Lucero - seeing them handle themselves with fans is really rad. They always are super nice and curteous and professional, even when I know they may not be feeling 100% that day. They're always so cool and nice to everybody. Lucero are some of the best people I've met in music, and that goes a long way."
I'm pulling up devils from the long dark past,
And the pain starts piling up too fast.
I can pin down the minute that I lost my buzz,
Thought I was somebody nobody could love.
- “Heart’s Too Heavy”
Regarding playing non-Southern towns, and finding they know and love his music, Moreland is appreciative, but played down the regional aspects of fandom. "There's people that share tastes and interests no matter where you go. Regionally, it hasn't necessarily been surprising to go to a place like Seattle and see, 'Oh, people like me here.' I figured that there are people everywhere who can get into it. Also, it's not necessarily my music driving it, but songwriters in general like Isbell and Sturgill Simpson being astronomically huge now opens up the whole map. I think that's really interesting - this kind of thing that just a few years ago was this niche thing, now it's reaching all these different people and kind of blowing up. There's so much good music out there. But now there's also so much empty fluff. Real songwriting fans are smart and really demanding more, and looking to those kinds of people to find it."
Regional barriers are dissipating, and these days the proud Okie fills venues in New York City, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and beyond. Yet, his local geography and idea of "home" clearly influences his songwriting and personal character. "You write about what you know, and Tulsa's where I've lived for twenty years. It just seeps into the songs without me really thinking about it." His Springsteenian, liberal use of proper nouns gives the listener a visual anchor that plants them in the middle of the narrative - adding depth to already molasses-thick lyrical content.
My baby's a tornado in the endless Oklahoma sky.
Spinning devastation and singing me a lullaby.
You're wrecking all the rooftops when April turns to May.
It wouldn't make a difference if I could or couldn't stay.
I'd fall back into love, look up and you're gone.
But I still feel you storming in my bones.
- “Cleveland County Blues”
Far from humorless, after a few songs the self-aware Moreland joked with the crowd; “I’m going to go ahead and not switch things up and continue bumming everyone out.” Before “You Don’t Care Enough For Me to Cry,” he deadpanned, “Here’s a song I found out earlier this year is too sad for Dallas-Fort Worth morning television.” (The story behind that is explained in full in Moreland’s recent Wall Street Journal interview). He even dedicated his encore to the Carson Street drunk who meandered on stage mid-song, patted him on the back, and left a couple crumpled bills on the empty stool next to Moreland.
He closed set with the singular, stirring, “3:59am”, a song that emphasizes everything John Moreland does well. Ending on a hopeful note, “3:59am” is a searing reminder of the hope and grace found just below surface of his work.
So try to be patient, try to understand.
I’m a child trying to do the work of a man.
My pockets are empty; I don’t own a thing.
But I’d take a diamond from the sky and put it in your ring.
“A lot of touring,” is next for Moreland. But more new music is not far off. Asked about the rest of 2015, he said, “I might record a little bit. I don't think it'll be the kind of thing where we're going into the studio for three weeks and making a new record. I like recording in short bursts, just work on something for two or three days and come back to it later. I'll start that process in the fall.” This August, Rolling Stone placed High On Tulsa Heat at number 11 in its “30 Great Country Albums of 2015 You Probably Didn’t Hear” feature. That list in notable in two ways; as it placed Tulsa Heat exactly ten spots too low, and it will certainly be the last presumptuous “best that you’ve probably never heard” list John will ever populate.