John Moreland Wants to Give You His Big Bad Luv
After multiple album cycles, culminating most recently with Big Bad Luv (4AD Records), roots-leaning singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Moreland still benefits from word-of-mouth support.
Twelve days before the May 5th release of Big Bad Luv, Miranda Lambert tweeted some very kind words: “How does @JohnMorelandOK know everything? A song for every emotion. Thanks John for making me smile (and) breaking my heart with your words!” That’s as kind and accurate a review as you’ll find of Moreland’s songs, jammed into 140 characters and typed by a genuine country music superstar. Moreland’s former tour mate Jason Isbell was just as kind, charging a fan base presumably smaller and more cosmopolitan than Lambert’s to check out the new album.
Even if the mouths in question have quite the platform onstage and online, it’s still a form of grassroots support for an artist whose punk past and independent spirit landed his music on the tours and turntables of his most visible and vocal fans.
Like a lot of 30-somethings in roots music, Moreland learned his earliest lessons about self-promotion and public performance as a teenage punk rocker, including stints in Widow Song and Thirty Called Arson. “There was a little scene here in Tulsa,” he says. “At its peak, you could get maybe 100 people out to a hardcore show.”
The unpredictability of that scene, paired with an appreciation for Steve Earle as a songwriter and performer, prompted Moreland’s drastic change in musical style. “When I was in hardcore, I was that dude who was always in five bands at the same time,” he says. “Those bands always would break up after six months, a year if you’re lucky. I’d started playing in my first bands when I was 13, so by the time I was 19 or 20 I was pretty burnt out on starting a new band every six months. Musically, I was burnt out. I didn’t really find it exciting anymore. I also wanted to do something I could sustain a long time and create a legacy. That’s what attracted me to roots music.”
Transitioning from a guitarist in groups that were sums of their parts to a project where he was front-and-center was initially intimidating for Moreland. “When I first did it, to soften the blow, I still had a band and we used the name John Moreland and the Black Gold Band,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable just saying John Moreland. That was sort of my compromise. I eventually saw that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so when this band broke up I’d just perform under my own name. But when I first started, I was nervous to perform just as John Moreland.”
Moreland was working through those butterflies in front of an entirely new audience. “When I first started doing what I do now, a lot of folks from the hardcore scene didn’t understand it at all,” he says. “From their perspective, it probably seemed like I disappeared. Since then, I’ve had a small number of friends from back then who come to my shows now. So yeah, I don’t think putting ‘ex-member of’ on flyers would’ve helped. People generally didn’t follow along on that journey.”
Moreland’s previous six albums, issued between 2008-2015, were the product of a do-it-yourself approach he’d learned from his hardcore past. “Getting to this point, (a D.I.Y. approach) was very necessary,” he says. “When I started my career, I was booking my own shows which I learned to do in hardcore bands. I was booking nationwide tours, not just local and regional stuff. I put out my own records in the past, and I ran my own mail order off my website, which is taking a page straight from Dischord Records – or when I was 16 or 17 I was really into a label called Level Plane out of Philadelphia. Robotic Empire is another one I liked, out of Richmond, Virginia. Those were my examples of total self-made, DIY distribution and mail order.”
Playing anywhere, anytime earned Moreland more than subcultural capital. It made him a proven commodity for his support team, including British indie giants 4AD. “I know a lot of people who are super talented but just kind of hang around their hometown or hang around Nashville hoping something happens,” he says. “To me, that didn’t seem like the way to go. Going out and touring and showing that I could do it on my own was important to later getting a booking agent, a manager, and getting other people involved. I’d shown that I could do it first.”
All of those shows in all of those towns sharpened Moreland’s undeniable musical talents, as evidenced by Big Bad Luv. Although his songs are sometimes categorized as “sad bastard music,” new cuts “Old Wounds,” “Love is Not an Answer,” and “Slow Down Easy” emote the whole gamut of emotions between love and loss, hate and forgiveness. Moreland’s voice is more akin to raspy, weather-beaten blues pickers than nasally folk singers or smooth-sounding country crooners, adding a sense of worldly wisdom to each song.
Moreland doesn’t consider his music country, even if he has an outlaw’s spirit of independence. Still, his music has more to do with Harlan Howard’s classic “three chords and the truth” than the average modern country hit.
He not only doesn’t sound like your average male country pop singer. He doesn’t look like them, either. Someone else can write those guys’ songs and compensate for any vocal limitations in the studio, as long they look good in tight britches. Moreland, however, has been on GQ’s website. It was a very touching, informative Q&A in which he candidly talks about growing up overweight. There was a time as a teenager when Moreland would have preferred being thin and handsome, but he’s grown comfortable with his appearance as an adult. “The older you get, you’re just like, ‘Fuck it, who cares?,’” he says. “I’m not going to let it keep me from doing my thing. That’s a character-building circumstance. I’m very happy with the person I am today, so I have to appreciate all the things, good or bad, that’s brought me here.”
To be clear, women in all walks of life face way more scrutiny for their appearance than any man who happens to be overweight. Lambert had to lash out at Instagram trolls over a picture she took with Anderson East at the CMA Awards, and she always looks fit. That said, I’m probably not the last guy who’ll tell Moreland that parts of the GQ article hit home. Like his songs, there’s the right mix of relatable sadness and inspiring triumph in each response.
Speaking of Instagram, Moreland is a hoot on social media. If you like sports, it’ll make you want to talk MLB and NBA with him after the show. That is, if he’s not in a hurry to listen to Get Up Kids in the tour van.
The funniest thing he’s done online in a minute, and the best evidence to date that he’s not really a sad bastard, was the Wikipedia edit of his guitarist John Calvin Abney’s aliases. Once Moreland was through, Abney’s list of nicknames included Space Cowboy, Surf Cowboy, Dookie Brown, and, best of all, Shitty Waylon Jennings. “We’re always calling him these different nicknames, and the other night we said, ‘How many nicknames do you even have?’, Moreland adds.
Despite his current spot under the very broad umbrella called Americana, Moreland is still akin to the self-sufficient artists behind thriving hardcore scenes. Even with capable support team members and band mates, he can’t be all that different from the self-starter who was anxious about singing in front of people. After all, he’s still a roots-minded folk artist, singing relatable songs for a grassroots audience of underdogs who, in the face of their own sadness and struggles, survive on self-love.
Photo by Matt White.