It’s a damn shame John Moreland won’t ever be a mainstay on mainstream country radio, at least not in its current format. His music is some of the most soulful in the country genre right now. But he doesn’t look like Luke Bryan, and his songs don’t glisten with the promise of a rowdy good time partying on the town. Don’t be fooled, there’s lots of drinking songs on Moreland’s latest, High on Tulsa Heat— but they’re songs meant to be played while drinking after pain and hard experience, not raucous debauchery.
But more on that later. First, some background.
Moreland was born in Longview, Texas to an electrical engineer father, which meant . When Moreland moved from Kentucky to Tulsa when he was 10, he started writing songs. He ended up playing in a bunch of local punk and metal bands until, he said, he got bored with the whole scene.
“I’d just overexposed myself to punk and hardcore to the point that it just didn’t do anything for me anymore,” he said in his biography.
So, Moreland turned to the music of his dad’s generation, namely Steve Earle. He started writing country songs, and now he’s released three albums— Earthbound Blues, In the Throes and 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat.
Moreland’s sound is characterized by sparse arrangements, letting a simple guitar, bass line and drums play, very rarely plugging into an amplifier. His voice sounds like a more tortured Springsteen. Tulsa is long way from Nebraska, but the musical cues from The Boss’s legendary album sound closer than ever with song titles like “You Don’t Care For Me Enough to Cry” and lyrics like “We’re covered up in fiction, chasing something true/ Well damn the luck, and damn the consequences too/ I could bury all the memories, I could patch up all the holes, but I’d still feel your fingers on my soul” (“Cleveland County Blues.”)
His songs have been featured on the hit show “Sons of Anarchy”, and Tulsa Heat was produced on the Thirty Tigers label, which also boasts Aaron Watson, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, whom Moreland will tour with next year. So, it’s safe to say Moreland’s star is on the rise.
It’s only right that his career should be taking off more than it already is. Singer-songwriters are having a moment in the country world right now. Artists like Moreland, Simpson, Isbell, Watson, Chris Stapleton and Brandy Clark make up a class of writers who are creating music on their own terms with songs that excel in making listeners feel something.
The songs on Tulsa Heat are relentlessly introspective; each song feels like a step into a confessional booth where the listener is the priest, waiting to hear Moreland’s tale and respond with, “Me, too.”
That type of connection is rare with any artist, and it’s even more rare to feel that connection song after song. Moreland can do profoundly, devastatingly depressing better than anybody, but his songs also grapple with nostalgia and its importance (“American Flags in Black and White”) and good old Southern Baptist guilt (“Sad Baptist Rain”).
Moreland’s music is the stuff you listen to when you want a reprieve from the constant deluge of current party songs, curl up with a whiskey, and think.
Take a listen to Tulsa Heat here, and try not to feel something. John Moreland is a talent you don’t want to miss.