There’s a way Moreland evokes rather than explains in his lyrics – take “3:59 AM,” also off of In The Throes: “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.” There are romantic couplets and then there is this, which is a love song the way love actually is: layered with highs, lows and letdowns, and battling its maturity against the enduring childhood of so many lives. “I still use your old alarm clock/ Every morning I get further off the course,” he sings on “Cherokee,” one of the best songs about longing to emerge in recent memory.
Because what he plays is technically folk music, he’s often lumped into the “Americana” category of the Pandora/iTunes machine, but what Moreland does has much more in common with Elliott Smith, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” or even Daniel Johnston, who all relied on lyrics set amongst a nearly acoustic-punk sensibility to help transport those stories to the most personal of places. Maybe it’s his hardcore roots, but Moreland’s fearless when it comes to his compositions: he doesn’t rely on a weepy fiddle to make a song feel despondent, or create a crescendo of guitars to conjure excitement. He does it the old fashioned way: through words, set to quiet, uncomplicated plucks.
“If the American music business made any sense,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow Tweeted in 2013, “guys like John Moreland would be household names.” Moreland joked in a podcast that was probably the first time his father, as conservative as the state he lives in, ever agreed with the ultra-liberal television anchor.
“John’s songwriting is quite possibly a direct reflection of how the rest of us, as songwriters, wish we could write,” says musician and photographer Joshua Black Wilkins, who played with Moreland at that tear-inducing 5 Spot gig. “Each song is touching, honest and painful. Unlike most artists, his records and his live performances are nearly identical in effectiveness. I want to stay on his good side so he doesn’t resent me for being so inspired by him.”
Moreland keeps the line between performance and recording so tight because he tends to produce and record everything himself – and it’s something he’s been both praised and criticized for. Even after signing with Nashville’s Thirty Tigers, he’s kept control over most of his career, from distribution to art direction. Only recently has he let some of the day-to-day leave his hands, like hiring a booking agent to handle his touring schedule.
“There’s something cooler about getting some friends together and doing what you can with what you have,” he says. Some reviews of High On Tulsa Heat wished that Moreland had enlisted a flashier producer, or that his songs “deserved” some expert engineering (the website Saving Country Music called it “lazy and uninspired”); he eschews that notion. Though it’s now common practice for even fledgling bands to search out a studio maven much more well-known than they might ever be, Moreland doesn’t take much from the process of farming out his tracks for some sort of expert polish.
“Those kind of records have never been that interesting to me,” he explains. “I like stuff that feels free and off-the-cuff, and has roughness around the edges. But people want somebody they can name drop. It’s so hard to get noticed anymore, and they want someone who can get people’s attention who they can be attached to. That just doesn’t mean a lot to me.”
There’s not a lot of aggressive grabbing for attention in what Moreland does, across the board, which is part of his appeal. It all comes down to that emotional component – it’s a word that comes up in nearly every conversation about his work, particularly if you’re able to move past the simple talks of just “sadness.” “John puts so much of himself into every song then delivers it with so much emotion,” says Sammy Brue, a 14-year-old wunderkind who has found a sort of mentorship in artists like Moreland, Wilkins and Joe Fletcher. “He changed how I approach songwriting.”
Live, there’s humility to his performances; though he often closes his eyes when he sings, he manages to keep the audience in an intimate grasp. He’s often seen with his glasses on, dressed simply. Moreland would likely be the first to tell you he’s not designed for glamour shots, but he is interesting to look at: he’s a large man, and doesn’t try to adorn himself in anything other than what one might wear to drive a truck or fetch a paper. With his guitar resting on his abdomen, there’s no big band or light show: this is it. And it’s enough.
“John’s audiences are beyond attentive, mesmerized or even hypnotized,” says Terry Rickards, who books the 5 Spot and witnessed first-hand how he transformed the usual crowd, spoiled by music, into falling completely captive. “The 5 spot is a chatty place. Most Nashville audiences are. From the first strum of line check to “thank you, good night”… not a peep. None.” Rickards recalls one evening when Dave Rawlings stopped by to catch Moreland’s set – for the second time that day. He drove to Franklin and back just to witness a few more of his songs. “I believe he told John he was going to steal some of his stuff,” recalls Rickards.
There’s a magic mix in that “stuff” that imbeds itself so deeply into the gut. There’s no Music Row formula to what Moreland does, only lyrics that exist somewhere between the realm of narrative and poetry; not exactly storytelling, but full of lines that are crystal-clear evocation. He describes his method more as “stream of consciousness,” where the emphasis is more on feeling than simply leading the listener through a story. There are sketches that unfold, but blanks to be filled in, too. And, often, very little agenda.
“Sometimes I don’t know what [songs] are about until years later,” he says. “I don’t get a lot of satisfaction out of sitting down and saying, I’m going to write a song about this topic. I’ll have moments at a show where I am playing a song and I’ll think of something new, maybe that’s what that means. There is a lifelong process of uncovering where this stuff came from.”
And maybe that’s the reason for all those tears: everyone’s on a lifelong search to uncover the source of our emotions, and to hit the bass notes of day-to-day existence in a tone that rings the same for us all. When we hear someone singing those lessons, we stop. We become silent and we listen to the often sad, sometimes totally defiant, songs of John Moreland. Because that’s what feeling stuff is like.