A teenage punk-rocker turned Americana singer-songwriter, John Moreland has spent much of 2016 onstage, trading the palm-muted power chords and furious percussion of his youth for an acoustic guitar and road-worn vocals. He’s not the first roots musician to cut his teeth on harder music, but he’s far less gruff than his contemporaries, with a voice that’s both hurt and hauntingly beautiful. Songs about heartbreak and addiction rarely sounded so lovely as they do on Moreland’s album High on Tulsa Heat.
On today’s episode of Walking the Floor, Moreland talks with podcast host Chris Shiflett, another Americana songwriter with roots in the punk and hard rock scenes. Much of their conversation focuses on musical influences, but the two branch out, too, finding room to discuss everything from long-lost basketball careers to Moreland super-fan Miranda Lambert. Here are five highlights from the conversation, followed by the premiere of the episode itself.
1. Now numbering more than 150 shows per year, Moreland’s touring schedule is the result of a lot of trial and error. . .with an emphasis on the latter.
A DIY artist who writes his own songs, produces his own albums and prefers to play alone, Moreland kicked off his solo career by doubling as his own booking agent. He built each market slowly, gradually playing to more fans with every show. The process took years.
“You just show up, and it might be absolutely the wrong place for you to play in that town, but you go do it, and maybe there’s somebody there who says, ‘Next time you come to town, you should play at this [other] place,'” Moreland remembers. “So next time you come to town, you try to play at that place instead. And there’s still nobody there, but maybe the owner of the club likes you and you get to come back again, and there’s maybe 15 people there the next time. And you just keep doing that.”
2. Miranda Lambert once drove from Nashville to Arkansas, solely to see a Moreland concert.
“She came to a show in Little Rock,” Moreland says of the country superstar. “It’s funny, because I played in Nashville a couple days before that, but she decided to come to Little Rock.” When asked if he was star struck, though, Moreland audibly shakes his head, explaining that the support of a Top 40 artist doesn’t necessarily mean more than the support of an everyday fan.
“What does it mean to me?” he asks, repeating a follow-up question posed by Shiflett. “She was really nice, and I made a new friend – that’s all it means to me.”
3. While Lambert and Moreland may be friends, don’t expect Moreland to start writing songs for the Platinum singer – or any other country star, for that matter.
“I’ve always turned that stuff down,” he tells Shiflett. “I’m not really interested in that at all, and it’s not because of some ideological [belief] that it’s evil or any kind of bullshit like that. If it’s something I don’t feel like I’m gonna sing myself and put on a John Moreland record, then I don’t really have any interest in working on it. I like writing songs for me.”
4. Moreland credits a combination of Steve Earle’s music and his own youthful ignorance with pushing him to launch his own songwriting career.
“I was audacious enough to hear Steve Earle and be like, ‘I can do that,’ even though that’s fucking ridiculous, especially for a 19-year-old!” he says, laughing. “I was dead wrong, but I was dumb enough to think that, and that’s what got me going.”
5. Moreland’s initial dream job? A spot on the roster of an NBA team.
“I wanted to be an NBA player,” he admits. “I grew up in Kentucky before we moved to Oklahoma. College basketball is a big deal in Kentucky, so you start playing basketball when you’re 5 there. I always wanted to be a basketball player. I played basketball for years. When I was younger, I was always the tallest kid, and it was pretty easy.”
Once puberty hit, Moreland found himself surrounded on the court by kids who were just as tall as he was, ruining his advantage over the competition. The sport suddenly became a whole lot harder. He responded by going into his bedroom, cranking up some music and falling in love with another way of life.
“I quit playing basketball when I was 12 or 13, and over summer break that year, I got into punk rock,” he says. “By the time school started again, I didn’t wanna try out for the basketball team.”