The replay of John Moreland’s network television debut is…glorious and affirming and a sucker punch. He is announced by Stephen Colbert, lights dissolve, and the camera slowly focuses on the person midway across the unadorned stage, revealing him beneath muted blue lights.
He is a big man.
Seated, alone, cradling his acoustic guitar.
He looks like nobody who is famous.
Then he begins to sing, to caress the song “Break My Heart Sweetly,” and all that remains is to whisper, “Oh, my god.”
In Colbert’s studio everybody stood, like they were in church.
Big Bad Luv is the record John Moreland made after, after everything in his life changed. For the better.
He sings in one of those accents from flyover country that’s impossible to locate and implausible to mimic. (Texas, by way of Northern Kentucky, but mostly Tulsa, as it happens.) He sings directly from his heart, with none of the restraint and filters and caution the rest of us would apply for public protection. He sings with resolute courage.
And writes. Writes with simple eloquence about love and faith and isolation; the human condition; what every song and poem and novel is about, at the core: Life.
“Break My Heart Sweetly” came from his second solo album, released in 2013 and titled In the Throes. High on Tulsa Heat, released through Thirty Tigers, landed him on Colbert’s stage (that’s the LP Colbert held up). Song placements on “Sons of Anarchy,” an emerging artist nomination from the Americana Music Association.
Enough sales to compel Moreland to give up his DIY label operation, and sign with 4AD. “It grew to the point where I couldn’t really handle everything myself,” he says. “Even with a manager and a small team, I came to the conclusion that I’d like to play music and not worry about the other stuff.”
Enough success to buy a measure of peace, and not more pain. “I expected to just play in the corner of the bar and have people not really pay attention, make $100, go home and go to work the next morning, doing something I didn’t like,” Moreland says. “So, yeah, I didn’t really expect to be here. But, then, on the other hand, I did. I feel like I’m good enough to be here. And I’ve always been confident, even when I probably shouldn’t have been. I knew I was an outsider. I didn’t have a lot of faith in the music industry to let me in. But I guess they have. To some extent. That’s what I hoped for, but I wasn’t sure that would be how it worked.”
“In churches learning how to hate yourself/Ain’t grace a wretched old thing” he sings, the song called “Ain’t We Gold.” Big Bad Luv is unmistakably a rock ‘n’ roll record. If, that is, one understands the term to include Ray Wylie Hubbard, John Hiatt, and Lucero. Or The Band, maybe. Insistent songs, coming from a voice as elegant as unfinished barn wood, songs which insist upon their words being heard.
His fourth solo album, not discounting two records with the Black Gold Band and a third with the Dust Bowl Souls. Nor discounting early excursions into hardcore which were not youthful indiscretions but crucial training in the emotional honesty of confessional songwriting. A rock album, to be performed by a rock band. A partial break with the solitude of solo touring.
“Two or three years ago,” Moreland says, “it would have been impossible to picture touring with a band. Now that’s changed. I think I’ll still do some solo or stripped down shows, but I have the option to bring a band with me if I want. Ultimately it’s just what the songs felt like they should be.”
Big Bad Luv was recorded down in Little Rock, mostly with a crew of Tulsa friends: John Calvin Abney on piano and guitar, back from Tulsa Heat; Aaron Boehler on bass; Paddy Ryan on drums; Jared Tyler on dobro. And then Lucero’s Rick Steff on piano, which ended up being the catalyst for completion.
“I always start off writing whatever comes naturally,” Moreland says. “Once I’ve got seven or eight of those, then I’ll take stock and look at what I’ve got, figure out what belongs on a record together, and what might not. Then I’ll figure out what kind of songs I need.”
Three sessions over ten months, sandwiched between touring dates and life. The final sequence roughly approximating the order in which songs were written. “I chose the sequence for what I thought worked best musically,” he says, untroubled.
“Quick bursts of recording,” Moreland goes on. Gives off a quick laugh. “It’s not like we’re sitting there over-thinking the performances, I’m definitely a fan of just hit record and play it. But then there’s long stretches where I’m not in the studio, when I’m listening to what I did, asking how do I turn this into a record?”
The key turned out to be Rick Steff’s promise to record next week, even though Moreland didn’t have songs, not a one. “I went home and wrote five songs in four days and finished up,” Moreland says. Another deep, wry laugh.
Big Bad Luv is, at least by comparison…maybe…a happier record? “I don’t think I’m writing songs that are that much different,” Moreland says. “It’s always been a positive thing at heart, even if a song isn’t sunshine and rainbows. At the very least my songs have been a way to exorcise negative feelings so that I can move on. And hopefully they provide that same experience to listeners. So that’s what I’m still doing. I think it’s a positive thing. I think this record, there’s definitely a change in attitude, but it’s the same point of view.”
Oh, yeah. And Tchad Blake mixed it. “He’s also the only person I’ve ever worked with on a record whose name I can drop.”
“Slow down easy, I’ve been hauling a heavy soul,” he sings, this song titled “Slow Down Easy.” Carrying it for all of us, but no longer alone.
Singer-songwriter enthusiasts rejoice: James McMurtry will open for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on an extensive tour together in early 2018. The highly lauded tunesmiths will launch the run at the Criterion in Oklahoma City on January 4 and serpentine for weeks throughout the South, Midwest and East Coast before concluding at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia on February 17. Major markets on this exciting tour include the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and Kings Theatre in Brooklyn.
“James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth,” Isbell says, “and these days he’s working at the top of his game.”
The McMurtry-Isbell combination offers fans lyrical and musical depth and weight few tours can match. After all, they’ve both been hailed as the finest songwriters of their respective generations whose latest releases — McMurtry’s Complicated Game and Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound — show them in absolutely peak form. “James has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next,” Isbell enthuses. “I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics.” “Jason Isbell is one of the best songwriter-performers working today,” McMurtry counters, “and unlike most of us, he seems to have a work ethic to match. I will be studying him from the wings on this run.”
McMurtry continues riding waves of universal acclaim for Complicated Game. “At a stage where most veteran musicians fall into a groove or rut, McMurtry continues to surprise,” Texas Music magazine recently noted. “[Complicated Game] is a collection of narratives as sharply observed as any from McMurtry, but with a contemplative depth that comes with maturity.” Indeed, the Austin resident’s latest collection spotlights a singular craftsman as he turns inward (“These Things I’ve Come to Know,” “You Got to Me”). “The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships,” McMurtry says. “It’s also a little about the big old world verses the poor little farmer or fisherman.”
Either way, McMurtry spins his stories with a novelist’s eye (“Long Island Sound”) and a painter’s precision (“She Loves Me”) throughout. “[McMurtry] takes listeners on a road trip of unprecedented geographic and emotional scope,” No Depression raved of Complicated Game. “Lyrically, the album is wise and adventurous, with McMurtry — who’s not prone to autobiographical tales — credibly inhabiting characters from all walks of life.” “[McMurtry] fuses wry, literate observations about the world with the snarl of barroom rock,” National Public Radio echoed. “The result is at times sardonic, subversive and funny, but often vulnerable and always poignant.”
Longtime fans know McMurtry’s vibrant vignettes have turned heads for more than a quarter-century now. His critically successful first album Too Long in the Wasteland (1989), which was produced by John Mellencamp, marked the beginning of a series of acclaimed projects for Columbia and Sugar Hill Records. In 1996, McMurtry received a Grammy nomination for Long Form Music Video for “Where’d You Hide the Body.” Additionally, It Had To Happen (1997) received the American Indie Award for Best Americana Album. In his long career, songs like “Childish Things,” “Choctaw Bingo,” “Peter Pan,” “Levelland,” and “Out Here in the Middle” only begin the list of high watermarks. (Yes, Robert Earl Keen covered those last two, “Levelland” remaining a live staple.) Childish Things (2005) scored endless critical praise and spent six full weeks topping the Americana Music Radio chart. In 2006, it won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year. The track “We Can’t Make It Here” was named that rapidly rising organization’s Song of the Year, and was cited among The Nation’s “Best Protest Songs Ever.” Just Us Kids (2008) earned McMurtry his highest Billboard 200 chart position in nearly two decades and notched Americana Music Award nominations. Just Us Kids alone includes fan favorites “Hurricane Party,” “Ruby and Carlos” and “You’d a Thought.” Songs detailing the lives of everyday people, like “Fireline Road,” pierce listeners’ hearts with sharp sociopolitical commentary. “James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation,” said Stephen King.
Meanwhile, Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound follows their critically acclaimed Something More Than Free (2015), which won two Grammy Awards (Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song, “24 Frames”) and two Americana Music Association Awards (Album of the Year and Song of the Year, “24 Frames”). Nashville Sound’s ten tracks address real-life subjects, including cultural privilege, politics, love, and mortality. The release also finds Isbell and his bandmates returning to their rock roots full force.
Isbell steadily has become one the most respected and celebrated songwriters working today. “With his honeysuckle drawl and unrivaled knack for lyrical detail,” Rolling Stone magazine noted, “Jason Isbell is arguably the most revered roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation. Isbell sings of the every day human condition with thoughtful, heartfelt, and sometimes brutal honesty, and the new album is no exception.”
The Nashville Sound was recorded at Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A and produced by Grammy Award-winner Dave Cobb, who also produced Something More Than Free as well as Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern. The Nashville Sound is the first official Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album since 2011’s Here We Rest. Isbell’s band the 400 Unit features Derry deBorja (keyboards), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Amanda Shires (fiddle) and Sadler Vaden (guitar). The group’s five-night stand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in October sold out in less than three hours.
McMurtry’s no stranger to sold-out venues himself. He’s been packing houses with the James McMurtry Band since the release of his first record. In 2004, the popular Live in Aught-Three, on Compadre Records, demonstrated McMurtry & co.’s power on the road. In 2009, the CD/DVD Live in Europe was released, capturing the band’s first European tour and extraordinary live set. Along with seasoned band members Ronnie Johnson, Daren Hess, and Tim Holt, the disc features special guests Ian McLagan (the late Faces keyboardist and longtime Austin fixture) and Jon Dee Graham (True Believers, Skunks).
McMurtry tours year round and consistently throws down unparalleled powerhouse performances. The Washington Post notes: “Much attention is paid to James McMurtry’s lyrics and rightfully so: He creates a novel’s worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets. What gets overlooked, however, is that he’s an accomplished rock guitar player … serious stuff, imparted by a singularly serious band.”