Savannah Music Festival: John Moreland, Aaron Lee Tasjan
Saturday, March 31, 8:30 p.m.
North Garden Assembly Room at Ships of the Sea Museum
$30+ via savannahboxoffice.com
HE GREW up in the hardcore and punk scenes, but John Moreland hasn’t gone soft in his career as a country singer. Though he’s rounded his edges, the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter is one of the most piercing lyrical voices in modern roots music. His songs often wander across acoustic guitar strings now, but he hasn’t lost his edge.
“I was just that dude who was always in five bands at the same time,” Moreland gently laughs, recalling his early musical days. “When I was 19 or 20, I was just burnt out on playing punk and hardcore and was looking for something different—music that made me feel excited about music again. When I was growing up, my dad listened to Neil Young, The Band, Tom Petty...for whatever reason, I found myself going back to that, and it was like what happened for me when I first found punk.”
Moreland began writing songs when he was around 12 or 13 years old, but he didn’t start singing until he created a solo career.
“It was terrifying,” he remembers. “I never really thought of myself as a singer before that. I never wanted to be a singer...I just wanted to be the guitar player, the producer, arranger. But I wanted to do my own thing, and in order to do that, I needed to write some lyrics and get up the courage to sing in front of people.”
After playing in the Black Gold Band and the Dust Bowl Souls, Moreland went fully solo on 2011’s Earthbound Blues. That record revealed the tender center of Moreland’s songwriting, wrapped up warmly worn vocals and an alt-country lilt. In the Throes followed in 2013, and High on Tulsa Heat arrived in 2015.
His most expansive work, Big Bad Luv, was released in 2017. Recorded in Little Rock with a crew of Tulsa friends, including John Calvin Abney on piano and guitar, Aaron Boehler on bass, Paddy Ryan on drums, and Jared Tyler on dobro, the record has received stellar acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone and American Songwriter.
The record’s production creates a lush base with Moreland’s poignant writing as its pulsing heart. On the memorable “Old Wounds,” Moreland signs off the chorus with something akin to a thesis statement: “If we don’t bleed it don’t feel like a song.”
“I think that line was like a flag I was trying to wave,” Moreland says. “It was wondering, ‘Why am I this way? Why do I put myself through turmoil to get a song out of it—why does anybody do that?’”
When he first started writing, Moreland was hesitant—he led a “pretty average, boring, suburban middle class life”—why would anyone want to hear about his experiences?
“I was really into Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt,” he says. “I wanted to write story songs about these crazy characters like they did. I tried that, and it always felt weird, and it wasn’t quite believable, because I was trying to sing about stuff I didn’t know about. At a certain point, I tried to write about my boring life—maybe it’s not so boring. That’s when it clicked for me—these are songs that I can actually feel, and that in itself made them better songs regardless of what they were about. They were true and real.”
When it comes to the recording process, Moreland likes to keep it loose, working in the studio, going home, and adding overdubs and additional flourishes.
“I like to make records with loose plans on purpose so it becomes whatever it’s going to be,” he says. “I don’t want to force anything.”
In addition to his band, Moreland invited several titans of modern alt-country to lend their talents to Big Bad Luv. That’s Lucero’s Rick Steff on piano, and you’ll hear Dawes brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith and Shovels and Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent singing on some tracks.
“Once it all started to take shape, it was really enjoyable,” he says of the recording process.
Moreland hasn’t performed in Savannah since his high school hardcore band played The Velvet Elvis in 2002, and he’s looking forward to bringing a full band down for Savannah Music Festival. It might not be quite like his last Savannah show, but it’s not going to be a tame event either.
“It’ll be a wild rock ‘n’ roll thing,” he promises with an audible smile.