John Moreland Restores Hope in a Hopeless World

Photo by © Michelle Crosby

John Moreland sings tales that crawl through the soil, hiss in the night, and burrow themselves into the heartpocket of listeners.

Oklahoma-based Songwriter Has a Big Heart and Big World View

The year 2015 will be among the memorable ones for Americana music. One of the acts making it all the more so is John Moreland, a man whose music has been quietly inching its way toward (inter)national consciousness over the last couple of years and now seems poised to become standard issue; a stamp on the musical DNA of a generation, a voice who leads us into temptation and redemption, a songwriter who sees us coming out the other side and gives us hope for the future. Moreland is the kind of singer who keeps us guessing as to what happens next no matter how many times we’ve heard the song.

When Moreland’s 2011 Earthbound Blues came around it seemed that the Oklahoma-raised singer-songwriter had already lived a lifetime despite still being on the left side of 30. Having come of age in Tulsa’s vibrant hardcore/all-ages scene where downtown parking garages and rugged basements served as conduits for rock ‘n’ roll epiphanies, Moreland found himself leading the Black Gold Band for a succession of albums before settling comfortably into life as a solo artist.

Those opening notes of “Avalon” sound like they could have been traveling from across the centuries, perhaps from behind the door of a dirt floor shack somewhere deep in the heart of the South, on the kind of terminally lonely sweltering afternoon that never relents, and defeats the soul of lesser people who have no way to carve into the universe and howl out their pain. It’s the kind of song that Lowell George wrote in his youth when his star was still bright and his observations on the American experience were as fresh as the bright blue sky.

You could squeak out the same melancholy tears that Jerry Jeff wanted you to in “Mr. Bojangles”, but there was something new in this melancholy, the kind of uplift—false or otherwise—that comes with music from the church, in those crevices between repentance and damnation. Getting through that one song—hearing the wisdom that Moreland unfolded with each chord, each beat, each line—is like earning a Ph.D. in truth, or at least taking a lesson in the garden with one of the subject’s great masters.

It’s no surprise that Moreland’s music drips with religious imagery; he’s acknowledged that he once had to struggle with the distance between punk’s suspicion of authority and religion’s reliance upon it. He touches on that via the ass-shaker “Good Book” on that first album, perhaps nowhere as poignantly on his latest recording, High On Tulsa Heat’s “Sad Baptist Rain”, where “The sky came apart/with my guilt-stricken heart” seems to have fallen from the heavens above, where the buoyant beat belies the turmoil and confusion the song’s narrator feels as he swings the pendulum of sin.

Without an ounce put-on, pretension, affectation, he moves through those and other emotions, breaking hearts from the opening moments of 2013’s “I Need You to Tell Me Who I Am” (from In The Throes) to this year’s “You Don’t Care Enough for Me to Cry” and “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars”. These are the kind of tales that crawl through soil, hiss in the night, and burrow themselves into the heartpocket of listeners, the kind of songs that dangle on simplicity and heartbreak the way that John Prine’s best songs do.

That emptiness and ache is evident through “Cleveland County Blues” where “My baby’s a tornado/in the endless Oklahoma sky” is as deep a first cut as you can get; it’s there, too, on the haunting “Cherokee” and the hook-y “Losing Sleep Tonight” with its anthemic rage against the dying of the light. Sure, countless writers have traversed that fine thread into the art of darkness but what separates Moreland from others—and from many of his peers—is that his music carries a sense of catharsis. We get over in the end rather than wallow in it or celebrate the suffering for the sake of suffering.

That, of course, is not to say that Moreland is doom and gloom. Far from it. Rather, he’s the kind of guy who could carry the weight of the world but instead makes the trek more bearable so that no one has to if they don’t want to. “Your Spell” (from In The Throes) is a kind of “Born to Run” for the new century even though the characters don’t run far beyond the end of the block, despite their deepest desires. These aren’t abstractions that he sings of, but instead stark representations of what happens in the deepest hours of the night (“3:59 AM”) and the deepest recesses of the soul (take your pick).

Moreland’s a welcome guest at the American music party where the 21st century versions of the Chad Mitchell Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary crop up every other week, vying for our attention with desktop concerts and cutesy covers. But they fail to speak truth on the much vexed questions of the day, they fail to inspire heroism with their utterances or beg us to find a way to love one another in a way that is perfect and lasting despite the odds against us all. This music—which is at some level rooted in the folk tradition—comes from the earth rather than the high rise and it seems that of late that’s been forgotten, forgotten to the point that much of what is “Americana” has slipped into a kind irreparable self-parody unless one’s idea of Americana is post-graduate/post-dissertation blues or music scrubbed clean of substance and therefore heart.

Moreland isn’t the only artist to restore order. When Justin Townes Earle is at his best, he’s hard to beat; Sturgill Simpson is taking the music to somewhere near the outer limits—updating it but not robbing it of its soul; Moreland’s sometime tour mate Jason Isbell is working particularly fertile soil as he sings of single mothers and unwed fathers. Justin Kinkel-Schuster of Water Liars and Will Johnson hover in that worthy class, making honest listeners of us all with their tales of hard times, dark nights, and seeking poetry in the cracks in the sidewalk and the cracks in our hearts. Todd Snider has declared that Isbell has saved country music, but it seems more likely that he and Moreland and the others have reminded us that it’s OK to call our parents and grandparents, to love our brothers and sisters, even in those times when we can’t always get along.

Maybe that’s the greatest gift that Moreland’s music offers us, that glimpse of the unrepentant dreamer. He's the man who can sing about dusting off stars and hanging them on the wall for his lover; he can stare indifference in the face and not crumble and; he sees beauty in a world that's hard for one to be at peace with. That’s an America and Americana we should probably get behind—one that isn’t content with anything less than the truth and one that isn’t content with anything less than elevating beauty. We can put our ears to the wind on any given night and hear the sad, glorious, gorgeous songs of John Moreland.

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