ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
March 28, 2015
Today KRFC celebrates 12 years as The Only Station That Matters in the Greater Fort Collins Area. When I was 12 a middle school teacher sent a note home to my parents asking why I never took off the puffy orange coat that I wore, even on the warmest of days. I listened to Rush and collected pencils emblazoned with football logos. I hit someone in the head with my clarinet case. It goes without saying that KRFC is aging far more gracefully than I was. Happy Birthday KRFC! I'm happy to have a home here at Radio Fort Collins.
There is such a beautiful stillness to John Moreland when he plays. His guitar almost resembles a ukulele against his massive body, three fingers anchored to the soundboard while the thumb and forefinger do all the work. Moreland's eyes squeeze tight beneath the crooked brim of his everpresent trucker's hat, and the voice that finds its way out from his tangled beard is a world class country instrument. John Moreland is not a showman. The man who visited the Routes & Branches studios back in 2013 seemed painfully shy and uncomfortable. And then he sang.
As I mentioned in my June 2013 piece on John Moreland's heartbreaking In the Throes collection, nobody releases songs like the Oklahoma songwriter. It ended up second only to Jason Isbell's Southeastern as my favorite record for the year, though I've been losing sleep over the decision ever since, and I'd be glad to call it a tie. I've spent the past 5 days in the wake of Moreland's High On Tulsa Heat, almost afraid to hear how he'd follow up an album that has become so personally meaningful to so many listeners like myself. I've troubled over how to write about his new songs, what approach to take and even what picture I could use. But eventually I had to pull the trigger and just write.
For me, In the Throes was anchored on the line from "Your Spell", "Well you were the queen of my condition / I was the king of the ignored". For High On Tulsa Heat, it's all built around "I'm the kind of love it hurts to look at / But once I was enough to make you try" from the heartbreaking "You Don't Care Enough For Me To Cry". I could quote lyrics from the tunes of Tulsa Heat for days, because Moreland has become such a master of the throwaway line. Just as importantly, he cares about the cadence of the words, the rhythm of his language.
Moreland's two sentence liner notes state that "This is a record about home. Whatever that is." The people, the land, the streets and the sounds of Oklahoma ring throughout Tulsa Heat, from song titles like "Cherokee" and "Hang Me In the Tulsa County Stars" to lines like these from "Cleveland County Blues": "My baby is a tornado in the endless Oklahoma sky / A spinning devastation singing me a lullaby".
You could drop a line down the middle of Moreland's new collection separating the soul-baring ballads from the full band jams, with the latter taking up more of the record's real estate than on the relatively skeletal Throes. Chunky "box of rocks" drums serve as the bed for electric guitars and even the occasional keys. Tulsa Heat rises on its fair share of those heartland rockers, pieces that construct as much of an Oklahoma mythos as Mellencamp ever did for Indiana or Springsteen for New Jersey. It's just that the landscape that Moreland's songs paint is a profoundly internal one. Even the most tuneful pieces (like "Sad Baptist Rain" or the uncommonly upbeat title cut) don't necessarily boast those anthemic sing-along lyrics. This is the sound of a man baring his soul. It's no wonder Moreland keeps his eyes shut when he performs.
Time will gradually decide how High On Tulsa Heat stacks up against John Moreland's earlier classic. A week into the experience, it's my sense that the album's return to Moreland's fuller sound will earn it a wider audience, and it certainly won't hurt that there's already more promotional effort behind it than there was for the entirety of the Throes campaign. It still remains to be seen if the mainstream can recognize and embrace such a broken and beautiful body of music, let alone a stained two-day shirt, a worn trucker's hat and hair that probably hasn't seen a comb for a good while. I've not doubt that the folks who have already so strongly embraced Moreland's work will take the same ownership of Tulsa Heat. "I wanna learn a new sickness / Dance around forgiveness / Darlin' won't you be my ache to please / Or are you bundled up in barlight / Clinging to a prettier disease ..."
Hey, here's something: I'll be spending some quality time in Pueblo next week, so Once and Future Tarnation! guy Andy D will be pulling host duties for Routes & Branches. If you've been jonesing for the trademarked blend of country, rockabilly, punk and rock that only Andy can deliver, you'll want to tune in. I'll still be posting right here, however, telling you What's So Great About March?!
* Johnny & June Carter Cash, "Far Side Banks of Jordan" Bootleg Vol. 4: the Soul of Truth (Sony, 12)
* Spirit Family Reunion, "All the Way Back Home" Hands Together (SFR, 15)
* William Elliott Whitmore, "A Thousand Deaths" Radium Death (Anti, 15)
* Milk Carton Kids, "Monterey" Monterey (Anti, 15) D
* Staves, "Blood I Bled" If I Was (Atlantic, 15) D
* Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz & Aoife O'Donovan, "Crossing Muddy Waters" single (Sugar Hill, 15) D
* John Hiatt, "Memphis In the Meantime (live)" Hiatt Comes Alive At Budokan (A&M, 94)
* Charlie Parr, "Stumpjumper" Stumpjumper (Red House, 15)
* Tallest Man On Earth, "Sagres" Dark Bird Is Home (Dead Oceans, 15)
* Andrew Combs, "Long Gone Lonely" All These Dreams (Thirty Tigers, 15)
* Pokey LaFarge, "Cairo Illinois" Something In the Water (Rounder, 15)
* Whitehorse, "Baby What's Wrong" Leave No Bridges Unburned (Six Shooter, 15)
* Jack White, "Fly Farm Blues" single (Third Man, 09)
* Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Stone Blind Horses" Ruffian's Misfortune (Bordello, 15)
* Steve Earle, "Goodbye (live)" Train a Comin' (Winter Harvest, 95)
* Sarah Gayle Meech, "Tennessee Love Song" Tennessee Love Song (SGM, 15)
* Great Peacock, "Take Me To the Mountain" Making Ghosts (This is American Music, 15)
* Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, "Traveling Kind" Traveling Kind (Nonesuch, 15) D
* Ryan Culwell, "Red River" Flatlands (Lightning Rod, 15)
* James McMurtry, "Ain't Got a Place" Complicated Game (Complicated Game, 15)
^ John Moreland, "Sad Baptist Rain" High On Tulsa Heat (Old Omens, 15)
* True Believers, "Rain Won't Help You When It's Over" Hard Road (EMI, 86)
* Girls Guns & Glory, "Moanin' the Blues (live)" Tribute To Hank Williams Live (Dry Lightning, 15)
* Boxmasters, "You'll Be Lonely Tonight" Somewhere Down the Road (101 Ranch, 15) D
* Rhett Miller w/Black Prairie, "Most In the Summer" Traveler (ATO, 15) D
* John Calvin Abney, "Cut the Rope" Better Luck (Bullets In the Chamber Folk, 15)
* Elliott BROOD, "Jigsaw Heart" Work and Love (Paper Bag, 14)