As far as folk singers go, John Moreland is a baby — barely 31 years old and less than five years into his nascent solo career. But the Oklahoma native’s harrowing, resonant voice, emotionally intense subject matter, and intricate fingerpicked guitar riffs mark him as a much older, wiser man. Watch a YouTube video of him performing “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” — and I dare you to not cry.
Of course, songs that good don’t just appear out of the ether. They’ve been pouring out of Moreland since he was barely a teenager, when he unearthed his dad’s Martin guitar. John followed the usual early route through punk, hardcore, and heavy metal before discovering icons like Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt and settling into a dusty Americana groove. But Moreland went further than most with the musician’s version of Occam’s Razor, excising all the unnecessary extra from his music for the 2013 album Into the Throes, which was stark, severe, and isolated.
2015’s High on Tulsa Heat injected a few more bells and whistles into Moreland’s newfound sound — pedal steel, dobro, lush backing vocals — but the weight of his words remains. On “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry,” he sings, “I’m the kind of love it hurts to look at”; on the elegant “Cherokee,” which contains what is possibly the saddest music video of the decade, he laments, “I guess I’ve got a taste for poison/I’ve given up on ever being well.”
And yet Moreland expertly pulls off Springsteenesque heartland rock on “Sad Baptist Rain,” along with the songs on a new album he just finished recording — in the studio, with a full band, for the first time ever. “If nothing gets cut, it’ll be my first album with 12 songs instead of 10,” Moreland tells Folio Weekly Magazine. “It was harder to write after High on Tulsa Heat because I was touring more, and I don’t write on tour at all. But then I’d come home and be so tired, I didn’t feel like picking up the guitar, even though I knew I needed to. It was tough to find the enjoyment that I found playing music in the first place.”
Although Moreland represents his blue-collar roots to the fullest (you ever see somebody with an O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A knuckle tattoo?), he says that he’s resisted any push to become more politically or social active. “When I’ve tried to write overtly political songs, I’ve never liked what came out. I haven’t tried since I was 20 years old, so maybe I could do a better job now. But I think I’m better off writing about myself — helping people imagine being in somebody else’s shoes and experiencing life from a different point of view.”
Of course, the sociopolitical challenges of 2016 might call for more extreme measures: “I read an interview with my friend Micah from Two Cow Garage, which is putting out a new record with political songs, and he said, ‘I want to be able to tell my kids and grandkids that we said something and didn’t just stand around.’ I’ve been thinking about that for a few weeks and it’s something I’d like to try to incorporate into my music. But in the most natural way.”
Another natural evolution for Moreland? Overcoming a nasty case of stage fright and anxiety that plagued him for years after he stopped playing with old bands Black Gold Band and Dust Bowl Souls and started performing solo. In February, he made his television debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, an occasion that he says elicited extreme trepidation. “I thought that was going to be terrifying,” Moreland says. “But I had just finished a tour playing 1,000-seat theaters with Jason Isbell, so when I saw how small the Late Show theater was, I said, ‘This is easy — no problem.’ I meditate before shows now to diffuse some of that energy before I go on stage, where a year or two ago, I would just sit before a show like a ball of nervous energy going, ‘Just get on stage and get this over with.”
Two years ago, Moreland performed in St. Augustine, Gainesville, and Cedar Key as part of the inaugural Follow The Sun Festival, so chances are he’ll encounter plenty of rapt listeners when he headlines Sing Out Loud Festival’s Stetson Kennedy Showcase at Colonial Quarter on Sept. 3. And when asked about the arc of his career, Moreland says that an attentive crowd is all he needs. “I’d love to keep growing and see how far I can take this. But at the same time, I keep in mind that, five years ago, I didn’t think it was possible for me to play music for a living. Just to be able to do it at all without working some shitty job that I hate on the side? That makes me feel like I’m making it. Everything else is just a bonus.”