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Moreland gets high

By Bill Caruthers, June 2015

Sitting in a motel room in Houston after a weekend gig at the Mucky Duck, singer/songwriter John Moreland is in a pretty good mood. His career is on a major upswing, and he is riding some pretty big critical success of his latest release, "High on Tulsa." Moreland has a lot to be happy about with three cuts picked for the soundtrack of the hit TV show "Sons of Anarchy," a national record distribution deal with Thirty Tigers and, apparently a well-placed super fan in MSNBC political pundit Rachel Maddow.

Moreland is a big man and quite a sight to see. His long beard and multiple tattoos might give an initial impression of a menacing character, yet his mesmerizing stage presence, quiet social demeanor and polite personality belie this, almost immediately.

In fact, beyond his stage time or a few minutes signing autographs or working his merchandise table, Moreland is a very introspective and thoughtful man. He would much prefer letting his music speak for him whenever possible, even turning down an acting role in his own video for the single "Cherokee." "I like for the music to do the talking. Writing songs and singing them is my thing. Let someone else get in front of the camera."

John Moreland sings

Nashville video director Joey Kneiser took Moreland at his word. After giving his approval, Moreland didn't have any more to do with the production from beginning to end.

Moreland grew up in Tulsa and still lives there, near his parents, and has fashioned a burgeoning career out of what was long a ‘do it yourself' effort. In high school, Moreland planed in hardcore and punk bands, releasing a few albums about five years ago. The new disc is Moreland's third solo effort.

"Up until very recently, I did everything myself, I wrote the songs, played them on the records and pretty much did all production myself, and then I did all the packaging and shipping of the product myself too. I actually still do that. So…when I go out on tour, that kind of grinds to a halt."

"My shows are finally getting big enough that I really need some help and with my new distribution deal with Thirty Tigers, I have a lot better distribution, and you can buy my records at any local music store. But, if anything is bought through my website, I still do all the packaging and shipping myself. I also need some help on the road now too, so I have a road manager to help with things and work the merch table for me. Actually, he couldn't go on part of this summer's tour, so I took my mom with me. She is a school librarian. She is smart and strong and works as hard as I do. I knew she had some summer time off, and I enjoy having her here and she agreed because she's my mom."

Moreland is still two weeks short of his 30th birthday (June 22) and yet some of the imagery of his music is being compared to some of his musical heroes such as Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt. Moreland seems to shake off these comparisons with a great humility saying, "I try not to think about that. I mean I'm a fan of all of those guys, but I try not to think of anybody else while I'm writing. I try to figure out what I want to say and do it in a way that feels good to me. What feels right. Most of the time the words or a line come with a melody. I let the words suggest where the music goes."

He has been accused of writing solemn, almost sad songs for the most part. "I don't think about it much, but It probably is harder to write a happy song, but the truth is when I'm having a great day, the last thing I think about is writing a song. By the same token, when things aren't going well, writing is how I deal with it. I'm not sure I have it in me to write ‘light' songs, but they really aren't all sad…, but they are about something. I've got a song called ‘Gospel' that I don't think is sad, but it is a little heavy. My subject matter is often about searching for stuff, sometimes they are sad, sometimes not so much, but I don't know that I'm going to have a bro country album out any time soon."

Moreland, a Texas native, who grew up in Kentucky, has been playing a Martin 000 X-Series as a road guitar for several years, and it figures prominently in his videos available on YouTube. "I loved that guitar, it stood up to the road really well. I bought it because my dad had a '51 Martin 0018 that I learned to play, on and I still play it on record, but I don't want to bring it on the road. It is special to me. Martin necks just feel right to me. Actually, I just retired the Martin 000 and replaced it with a D28.

In spite of his newfound notoriety and influential fans, like Maddow, whom he has yet to meet, "The next time I play New York, I'm going to try to meet her and thank her. She has said some nice things about me on Twitter, and I really appreciate it;"

Moreland is still very much a do it yourselfer in many respects, even booking national tours himself, but that may not last too much longer. "In the last six weeks, I finally picked up an agent. That was kind of the last piece of the puzzle for me."

As for his newfound notoriety, Moreland says, "I can say this, there is not one single thing that I can point to that has been a major step in my career by itself, but there have been a hundred little things that have led to other things, that eventually became something big. I think that it comes from going out and working every day. That would be my advice to young acts out there, Do the best work that you can and stay busy, active. Anything good that has happened to me was because I was out there, doing it. Some days it breaks your heart, but there are great times too. If you stay at it long enough. I think someone will notice.