John Moreland’s album High On Tulsa Heat is a masterpiece in storytelling and songcraft. The lyrics and delivery seem to be influenced by artists as diverse as Townes van Zandt, John Prine, Hank Williams (sr.) and early Bob Dylan. There is probably a little of his fellow native Oklahoman Woody Guthrie in there as well. Those lyrics are filtered through a gravely voice that helps compensate for any flaws in the songwriting. That’s not to say those flaws happen often, but he is not in the same category of the aforementioned giants (yet).
A generation of up and coming alt-country musicians seem to have grown up on the acts that helped set the genre’s course in the early 1990s, like Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown. Moreland seems to have absorbed those influences but has gone back to the inspiration of those acts. Thus, his songs seem closer to the source and there’s a primacy in his songs that’s often missing from many other singer-songwriters today. Most of the songs feature him playing all the instruments, and there is a mix of acoustic ballads and plugged-in slow rockers. Moreland was born in Texas and now makes Oklahoma home. The landscape makes it’s way into several songs, most poignantly in Cleveland County Blues, in which he compares a lover to an Oklahoma tornado.
These songs will be too slow for many people but for folk and country purists, the album going to find itself in their regular rotation.
“Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars” sets the tone for the album with a tribute to his adopted state. Like most singer-songwriters, he lets his lyrics do most of the work, with sparse acoustic guitar used as scaffolding. Fortunately, his talents are strong enough for this to work.
From there he moves to mid-tempo plugged in rocker with the full complement of instruments including a pedal steel guitar on “Heart’s Too Heavy.” Love’s heartbreaking potential is another theme in addition to the Oklahoma landscape. “What if faith is just a false god’s verse?” Moreland asks. This world weary attitude toward love is a staple of country music, but that’s exactly why many people listen to country artists.
“Cleveland County Blues” moves back to an acoustic song. There is something captivating about a tornado as the popularity of Youtube stormchasing videos attests. Here Moreland compares the love for a woman to a tornado. He’s mesmerized by her but understands the ultimate heartbreak he’s destined for. “My baby is a tornado in the endless Oklahoma sky, spinning devastation and singing me a lullaby,” he sings. Here is links his two main themes: heartbreaking love with the sparse Oklahoma landscape.
“White Flag” is a next song and bears some influence in arrangement from Kris Kristofferson, especially his song made famous by Janis Joplin, “Me and Bobby McGee.” “I’m just your white flag waving in the wind, just like I’ve always been” Moreland sings. He follows “White Flag” with a relatively up-tempo “Sad Baptist Rain.” It’s a solid song, but not his strength. The song features a bluesy sound including harmonica, an instrument out of favor in much of country music.
The tears in your beer continue on the second half in the album. “Cherokee” touches on one of the more difficult episodes in American and Oklahoma history: the trail of tears. Explicitly the song is about failed love, but the historical backdrop hangs heavy through the song. This could be hazardous terrain, to compare one’s own personal difficulties to that of an entire people, but Moreland does is with enough delicacy to pull it off.
Four more songs close out the album, deepening the themes of love and loss. The second from last “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” is the highlight. That sparse guitar and lyrics return, and it’s what he does better than just about any artist today. “You need something stronger. A drug to kill the hunger and ease the awful pain of living here,” he sings. Did I mention some of his songs are heartbreaking? Aristotle believed Greek tragedy had the ability to purge those negative emotions in ourselves through catharsis. Listening to Moreland has a similar effect.