On his 2013 release In the Throes, John Moreland penned the lyrics, “Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore.” It’s a refrain symbolic of his music, of his genre. As the rise of the Internet has allowed listeners to seek out their own music over the last 15 years, a new audience that was smothered in corporate country music has found its East Nashville fringe — sincere lyricism about love and love lost; a blue collar brand of Southern song that owes as much to Springsteen as it does to Hank Williams.
“I think a lot of people give a damn about songs anymore. I was just in a bad mood,” Moreland laughs.
Moreland has a long relationship with Alabama. The singer-songwriter began playing intimate shows at the Standard Deluxe in Waverly long before signing on with Thirty Tigers (the label of Jason Isbell, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Sturgill Simpson, and more). In January, the 30-year-old Tulsa native did an “in-the-round” performance in the “little house” with his peers Aaron Lee Tasjan and Caleb Caudle.
“Man, Alabama has always been great,” he said. “I’ve always had great shows there. Corey Flegel (founder, This is American Music) was the first person I met. I was on a label out of Little Rock called Last Chance Records and Corey is buddies with the guy that runs that label, Travis Hill. Corey sent me an email one day, said he liked the record and wanted to know if he could help out. He got me a show at Standard Deluxe, which is where I met Scott Peek.”
Standard Deluxe is tucked away, if you’re unfamiliar, just off of Highway 280, 20 minutes or so northwest of Auburn. A gem, it has begun hosting these intimate shows with fare provided by Rob McDaniel of Springhouse Restaurant in addition to its major annual events like the Old 280 Boogie, the Fall Boogie and the Waverly Bluegrass Festival.
“I wish there were more places like that,” he said. “There can’t be, because it kind of doesn’t even make sense that that place exists. It’s one of my favorite places to play and every time that I’m there, I’m just like, ‘This can’t even be real.’”
Moreland’s mother is a native of North Mississippi, and he was raised on Memphis and Stax Records, but he eventually developed a love for Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit from Muscle Shoals. This year, he’s spent several dates on the road with Isbell.
“I learned a lot of detail,” he said. “The show was so good every night. There’s so much detail in the way that he talks to the audience. I think it makes them feel – it creates a feeling of intimacy, even in a really big theater. And behind the scenes, the way they run their show — I’ve toured with him before, but he wasn’t playing theaters then. This time, it was a whole different deal. It was cool to be exposed to that level of how this job works and how pro everything is.”
He’s also a big fan of Birmingham’s Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires. “I really respect what he does. There is a Bomb in Gilead and then Dereconstructed — I think I’m one of the few people that really digs the production [on those albums]. I love the ear-splitting quality that it has and when I finally got into the lyrics, I was just like, ‘This guy is out of this world. This [expletive] is so rad.’”
Now, he finds himself on the road with Dawes. They connected through live-session studio Daytrotter, when Moreland performed with Taylor Goldsmith on a solo date. An interesting position to find himself in – another “Americana” artist in a long line of talent that grew up playing in hardcore bands.
“I don’t know, man, it’s weird,” Moreland said. “I know so many people who were around my age that grew up playing in hardcore bands and now they’re doing what I’m doing. Or they’re listening to what I’m doing. The only thing that I can think of is that maybe we’re just drawn to stuff that has a real sincerity to it without any gimmicks.”
High on Tulsa Heat is the 2015 record that has been met with much acclaim. When Thirty Tigers came on board, they assured him that they didn’t want to change anything; that they just wanted to help more people hear Moreland’s music. The Nashville-based label has focused largely on Southern artists, but Moreland also shares the company of fellow Oklahomans Turnpike Troubadours, John Fullbright and Parker Millsap.
Rolling Stone Country named this year’s record the 11th Best Country Album of 2015 that “You Probably Didn’t Hear,” including his name alongside Springsteen and Tom Waits and calling him a “songwriter’s songwriter” in the spirit of Guy Clark, John Prine and Ron Sexsmith. If the company he has kept on the road is any indication, they’re right.
John Moreland opens for Dawes at Iron City on Tuesday, September 29. Doors open at 7 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m. Moreland takes the stage first. Tickets are $23 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.