John Moreland: Honesty in Show Business

By Jack Hanson
If you’re not listening to John Moreland, we have about 1200 words for you.

John Moreland is a songwriter and musician from Tulsa, Oklahoma who appears nearly the antithesis of a popular country singer. He is a heavyset, bespectacled man with a beard who wears a baseball cap to cover his bald scalp. He carries with him enough padding to rest his guitar comfortably on his stomach when he plays concerts, often sitting alone in a chair on the otherwise empty stage.

Nonetheless, Moreland has no trouble silencing audiences with only the power of his voice and guitar. He does so by soulfully singing his poetic, deeply sorrowful and introspective lyrics in a voice that embodies pure, honest emotion. If a song has never moved you to tears, then you have probably never heard the music of John Moreland.

Moreland was born in Kentucky and grew up in Oklahoma in a Southern Baptist family. However, beginning in his high school years he played with punk and hardcore rock bands and distanced himself from religion altogether. He continued to write songs and sing for alternative rock bands for the better part of a decade, with the heavy sound of electric guitar and drums supplementing the frustration and sorrow in his voice.

Eventually, he decided to leave behind the harsh tones of hard rock and create something even more raw and poignant. Moreland recorded and produced his 2013 album In The Throes entirely on his own, with a striking emotional impact as his primary goal. “When I was writing that record, I was like, ‘I want to wreck people. I’m going to make all these m*****f*****s cry,’” he told RollingStone.

Moreland certainly achieved his desired effect, as the album hauntingly examines heartbreak, sorrow, and longing with eloquent honesty. On tracks like “I Need You to Tell Me Who I Am,” “Blacklist,” and “Break My Heart Sweetly,” every word feels carefully chosen for maximum emotional devastation. InThe Throes also allowed Moreland to find his specific sound, which could be called Country, but fits better into the genres of Folk and Americana. His sound has remained recognizable as he has built upon it in his following two albums, High On Tulsa Heat and Big Bad Luv.

After In The Throes earned Moreland recognition from critics and a small-but-loyal following, he followed up the album with High on Tulsa Heat in 2015. Moreland again built the album around a central theme of deep sorrow, this time incorporating a fuller sound with assistance from other musicians. This richer sound made the album even more beautiful and helped him find a larger following.

His most important breakthrough came when talk show host Stephen Colbert invited him on The Late Show to perform a song for his television debut, which resulted in a performance that defied nearly every convention of a primetime television concert. For starters, the appearance promoted the recently released High on Tulsa Heat, but Moreland chose unconventionally to play “Break My Heart Sweetly” from In The Throes instead of a more recent track. He also opted not to dress up as all of Colbert's guests do, appearing onstage in a basic short-sleeve t-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap. Such an outfit, coupled with his obvious overweight figure, made him look the complete opposite of the well-dressed, clean-shaven, and slender Colbert who stood beside Moreland and introduced him to the audience.

Despite such contrasts, the performance mesmerized the audience more completely than any other had in recent memory. As Moreland sat in the middle of the stage with only his guitar and microphone surrounding him, his voice seemed to fill all of the empty space in the venue instantly, captivating the audience as he strained to pour every bit of emotion he could find into the song. The audience, having remained impeccably silent for the entire song, burst into thunderous applause after waiting for Moreland’s final chord to fade. Thanks largely to that appearance, High On Tulsa Heat became Moreland’s first major breakthrough success, with tracks like “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” “Cherokee,” and “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” earning him a reputation as an artist unparalleled in cultivating sadness.

It is difficult to describe the depth of emotion that Moreland conveys, but it's easily understood that his music's effectiveness comes from three fundamental elements: his poetic lyrics, his evocative voice that feels inherently bonded to those lyrics, and the simplistic but beautiful sound of his guitar. Most important is his songwriting prowess, which cannot be overstated. As one reviewer put it, “Akin to selecting one's favorite child, choosing one High on Tulsa Heat lyric over another is a thankless task.” That comparison also applies to almost everything Moreland has written in recent years. The following are notable excerpts from various tracks:

“I threw my love into the ocean and I found it in the sand
And I need you to tell me who I am”

“They put us back on the blacklist
Well, we never learned why we needed saved
We took a ride trying to hide from the god
Of early marriage and empty graves”

“I had a purpose and a song that was true
But I ain't ever had a lick of sense when it comes to you”

“I could bury all the memories
I could patch up all the holes
But I'd still feel your fingers on my soul”

“I wish you were here to softly say my name
Calm down all the chemicals tearing through my brain”

“Your favorite version of the past
You found in a photograph
American flags in black and white”

In interviews, Moreland explains that his songwriting is indeed honest, a fact that seems impossible to doubt after listening to his music, but that he enjoys writing even his saddest tracks because of the catharsis that it brings him. His listeners agree, as is evident from viewing the comments on his songs and social media pages online. In their comments, people express limitless praise and appreciation for Moreland’s music, saying that it has helped them through difficult times despite its sadness.

However, being seen constantly as a figure of sadness took its toll on Moreland. “When I heard the sad bas***d thing more and more, it came to a point where I felt like a caricature of a real person. It made me really depressed for a little while, where I kind of believed it and put too much stock in that,” he told RollingStone.

Fortunately, circumstances began to change for Moreland in recent years after he met his wife Pearl Rachinsky at the Folk Alliance festival in Kansas City. He affirms that she strongly influenced his most recent studio album, Big Bad Luv, which he released in 2017. Critics have called the album another breakthrough album for him, as it brings his sound into new territory and is Moreland’s first album in many years that is not entirely sad.

Big Bad Luv explores careful optimism after the formation of a new relationship, reflecting on the past from a new perspective, and features brighter melodies. The album's rootsy, rollicking opener “Salisaw Blue,” for example, marks Moreland's first truly upbeat song since his alternative rock days. The track quickly became a hit, thanks to its unique harmonica-driven acoustic rock-'n'-roll sound. In addition to new melodies and a new perspective, Big Bad Luv most importantly still features 100% of Moreland’s careful, gorgeous use of language.

After touring cross-country and overseas for the album, Moreland is currently laying low with no future tours scheduled and has given no indication of his plans for the future. As such, the nature of his future music is uncertain, but he is certainly an unconventional musician worth following.

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