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John Moreland Brings Tulsa Heat To Wichita

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Joey Kneiser
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Listening to the thoughtful, meditative lyrics and music on John Moreland’s latest album, High On Tulsa Heat, it might be hard to imagine that the Oklahoma-raised songwriter cut his teeth in the state’s hardcore and metalcore scenes.

But starting in 2000 he worked his way through a succession of acts, including the short-lived but well-known Thirty Called Arson. Even then Moreland was intrigued by lyrics and poetry and music that ran counter to what he heard in the Tulsa all-ages scene. He’s often cited Steve Earle as one of the artists that led him toward his current acoustic-driven sounds.

“It was the way that the right words with the right melody can really have an impact. I was in hardcore bands and punk bands where songwriting isn’t necessarily the focus but songwriting is what I was always interested in,” he says. “It was a matter of finding a style of songwriting that really placed value on songwriting.”

Words were an early point of interest to Moreland. “I always liked my English classes and writing stories and poems,” he says, but adds that the energy and inspiration he took from there was quickly channeled toward music. “I haven’t written anything that hasn’t been set to music for a long time.”

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Credit Michelle Crosby

  He also took inspiration from his adopted hometown, Tulsa, where his family relocated when he was ten. “There was a cool little music scene. When I was in high school we played lots of shows in basements and I even remember having shows on the roof of a parking garage in downtown Tulsa back when there was nothing downtown. It was like a ghost town so you could get away with stuff like that, he says. “Being involved in that stuff really helped me with what I’m doing now because it gave me that DIY mentality. I learned how to book my own shows and put out my own records. I wouldn’t have a career right now if I didn’t know how to do those things.”

For some Moreland seems to have appeared from nowhere with High On Tulsa Heat but in truth he’s been release albums for the better part of a decade, including three with the band Dust Bowl Souls and, since 2011, three as a solo artist. Each of his solo albums has built on his previous reputation with critical acclaim seemingly growing at the pace of his audience. He says that the acceptance from the press came as something of a surprise.

“It was a little strange because I’d been making records and touring for several years without that. It was a little surprising when people actually cared,” he says.

Much of the praise Moreland has received has been for the appropriately poetic nature of his lyrics and his unaffected singing voice and songs such as “Sad Baptist Rain.”

“I was trying to paint a picture of some of the shows I went to as a kid and being brought up in a religious home but also being interested in punk rock and trying to reconcile those two worlds,” he says. “I mostly saw contrast between them. What attracted me to punk rock was the idea of questioning authority that was something that was the complete opposite of what I was being told in the church.”

Moreland is currently touring with Jason Isbell, another singer-songwriter who has sought to reconcile a religious upbringing with the ways of rock ‘n’ roll. Isbell has acknowledged the connections in style and attitude in interviews and the current pairing, which sees the two arriving in Wichita on Sunday evening for a performance at the Orpheum Theatre, has been delighting crowds for most of the summer.

Moreland says he’s been watching Isbell but not always from a musical standpoint. “He’s on a whole different level of touring than I am, so just seeing how that all works has been eye-opening. It’s also cool for me to play in front of a thousand people every night. I don’t get to do that very often.” The two will be on the road together through Sunday and Moreland will pick up with Dawes on Sunday in Kansas City and remain on the road for the rest of the year with that Los Angeles-based group as well as some short runs with Patty Griffin and Langhorne Slim. Then he’ll trek to Europe for the first time in January on a run that will reunite him with Isbell. It’s an itinerary that’s bound to introduce him to many more new fans but he says he’s remaining focused on the music.

“I don’t really worry about how big the room is, I’ll leave the strategizing to my manager. But when you get an opportunity to play in front of that many people and to open for somebody that you really like, you gotta go for it.”

Info about Sunday’s show: http://www.wichitaorpheum.com/events/400/jason-isbell/