As I wrote in the preface to the PopMatters Best Americana of 2014, the genre is one “where honest craftsmanship is required, respected, and rewarded… the songs and music are what count.” Few artists working today typify this statement more than John Moreland. The former punk kid from Oklahoma found his way to songwriting via Steve Earle, yet politics and global matters have no home in Moreland’s songs; homespun truths ripped from the soul, the pain unearthed from within is Moreland’s specialty.
Over the course of two solo albums Moreland has amassed an ardent following that hangs on his every word. Regarded as the voice of a niche demographic that revels in whiskey nights, heartbreak, punk rock and sweaty bodies, Moreland’s words are the lyrical baptism required come Sunday morning. Garnering attention for his introspective 2013 album, In the Throes, two of that album’s songs were used on Sons of Anarchy alongside the likes of Tony Joe White, Quaker City Night Hawks and the Saint Johns.
On his third solo album, High on Tulsa Heat, Moreland questions his own ability, singing “Well these angels in my eardrums / They can’t tell bad from good / I lived inside these melodies / Just to make sure I still could” on “Heart’s Too Heavy”. Knowing his strengths, Moreland proclaims “I’m so damn good at sorrow” on “You Don’t Care Enough for Me to Cry”, which can almost be taken as an in-joke for those familiar with Moreland’s oeuvre. Solo in name, Moreland and his acoustic guitar are all that adorn opener “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars”. Playing all instruments on “American Flags in Black and White”, his cautious take on nostalgia, Moreland gives way to others on the album’s remaining eight songs.
Even with musical intervention, a Moreland song is a Moreland song no matter its players or arrangement. Always present are themes of love (“You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry”), longing (“Cleveland County Blues”) and guilt (“Sad Baptist Rain”). Unlike the mostly acoustic In the Throes, High on Tulsa Heat features contributions from fellow Okies John Calvin Abney (guitar, organ, harmonica), Jared Tyler (dobro), Kierston White (backing vocals) and Jesse Aycock (pedal steel), providing a more diverse recording as evidenced by the electrified “Heart’s Too Heavy”, hook-filled “Losing Sleep Tonight” and swelling closer “High on Tulsa Heat”.
Having proffered up the notion that “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore” on In the Throes, Moreland himself continues to debunk such a myth. Akin to selecting one’s favorite child, choosing one High on Tulsa Heat lyric over another is a thankless task. With lines like “Won’t you roll out that red carpet / When we all wind up dead / Your smoke rings fade like a memory / You were honest as a ghost, baby / Twice as free” (“Heart’s Too Heavy”), “I’d still feel your fingers on my soul” (“Cleveland County Blues”), “Are you worried that you’re happier / At war than at peace” (“Losing Sleep Tonight”) and “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” (“Cherokee”), Moreland speaks to and for those who deeply care about matters of the heart.
Just as Townes Van Zandt influenced Steve Earle, who in turn impacted Moreland, the Oklahoma songwriter will be the touchstone for the next generation of Americana artists should tradition hold. Already the standard-bearer for today’s brood that includes Abney, Caleb Caudle and M. Lockwood Porter, Moreland proves there’s nothing sanctimonious about singing the truth on High on Tulsa Heat.