High on Tulsa Heat

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review: marla cantrell

John Moreland, Tulsan, folk singer, prolific songwriter, says he writes slowly and edits a lot. What comes from his method are intricate lyrics that seem to be steeped in the red dirt of Oklahoma. On this, his third solo album, his theme is home, what it means to find it, and the hard places that accompany it.

Geographically, you’ll feel instantly connected, since there are places in Fort Smith where you can stand with one foot in Arkansas and the other in Oklahoma. But there is also something universal about his lyrics. In them, relationships go wrong; there is angst over war; and love sometimes feels like a sickness that will do you in.

As you listen to High on Tulsa Heat, Moreland’s voice may sound familiar. It’s not because he’s a household name — he’s not quite there — but FX’s Sons of Anarchy did use three of his earlier songs, “Heaven,” “Gospel” and “Your Spell” on its hit show.

As good as those are, I think this album is even better. “Cherokee” absolutely shines. “I don’t think I’ve missed you this much since I was seventeen. I’d call you in the morning but I think this is a dream,” Moreland sings, his voice sandpaper rough, the words lovely and lonely and perfect.

“Cleveland County Blues” starts out with only the thrum of Moreland’s guitar. When he begins to sing, these are the words that reach out and grab you: “My baby is a tornado in the endless Oklahoma sky.” And later, “I still feel you storming in my bones.”

For those of us who’ve spent our lives watching the skies for bruise-colored clouds, who’ve calculated the seriousness of the weather by the way the air seems to shift and then stop, this is a song we feel in our souls. Heartbreak can roll across us like a storm. It can leave only emptiness in what had been a well-ordered life.

“You Don’t Care For Me Enough to Cry” is a tearful requiem for the brokenhearted. On “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” Moreland sings about disappointments, a heart grown heavy from living on earth, of a desire to be part of the Indian Nation sky. “White Flag Waving in the Wind” is a grittily hopeful song about a couple who’ve been through hard times, breakups, disappointments, but won’t give up on each other.

Moreland is a big, burly guy: dark beard, dark-rimmed glasses, often wearing a ball cap. At thirty, he doesn’t look particularly vulnerable, but his music is full of vulnerability, introspection, and brutal honesty about how he sees the world, the hurt in it, and the connections we make with people who become inseparable from us.

High on Tulsa Heat is so Oklahoma it could not have been written by an artist outside the state. Those who love Moreland are overjoyed with his latest effort, and they’re already waiting on the next one from a singer-songwriter who is gaining more attention with every new song.

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