Few people would know it now, but John Moreland's Oklahoma origins began in punk and hardcore bands. He even released a couple of punk albums with his Black Gold Band, with Things I Can't Control being a collaboration with legendary punk producer and guitarist Stephen Egerton (Descendents, All). Since those early days, however, he has proven himself one of the most heartbreaking writers in Americana. His five solo records are filled with soul-stirring odes to rural America, love and love lost.
Moreland has cemented his reputation as a "musician's musician" -- that is, even in the instance that you haven't yet heard his music, your favorite artists probably love Moreland's work. Over the course of his solo career, he's shared the stage with artists like Jason Isbell, Lucero and Patti Griffin, and he's been featured on numerous festival bills with the best of the genre. Moreland's music is usually acoustic, but he did recruit a full band for his fourth solo record, Big Bad Luv, in 2017. That group featured Griffin and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, along with Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent from Shovels and Rope.
When taking a look at Moreland's entire catalog, it can be easy to get lost in a lot of sad songs. That's what he does best, and he writes a lot of them. But as we focus on his five solo records for this list, there's plenty of upbeat tracks included to get any listener hooked.
Here are The Boot's picks for John Moreland's ten best songs, so far:
"Love is Not an Answer"From: 'Big Bad Luv' (2017)
Moreland has a way of writing heartbreaking songs about solitude and regret while sounding like something familiar that you can't quite place. Here, with the inclusion of organ, that something familiar is Jakob Dylan and The Wallflowers. "Love is Not an Answer" is a track that could have appeared on any of the latter’s albums seamlessly.
“I used to weigh the distance / I used to miss my cues / I used to say ‘I love you’ / Then wonder who I’m talking to”
"American Flags in Black and White"From: 'High on Tulsa Heat' (2015)
“American Flags in Black and White” is about how idyllic the past becomes as it marches further away. Moments in time captured by photos remove a lot of context, and often, that stillness feels like something it may have never actually been.
“And the things that made you feel so safe / Are only on a screen these days / And there’s a loser in every fight”
"You Don't Care Enough for Me to Cry"From: 'High on Tulsa Heat' (2015)
This track from High on Tulsa Heat is about moving on, but with the hesitation that you’ve given more of yourself than you ever received. It’s codependency, and it’s self-assurance that it wasn’t your own fault.
“I dreamt I’d take you with me / And you’d say you forgive me / And we’d live out some ancient easy song / Now where I am unattended / In a splendid love’s remembrance / You lost the mind to even do me wrong”
"East October"From: 'LP5' (2020)
“East October” was the first track that Moreland shared from 2020’s LP5. The song finds its narrator reckoning with new independence and unsure of what life looks like in that now unfamiliar reality. “North Carolina in East October” somehow both transformative and reflective, a place and a time in which the past feels fond, but the future is filled with possibility.
“How am I ever gonna get by? / How am I ever gonna get by all by myself?”
"I'm Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth"From: 'LP5' (2020)
There’s a haunting, hollow piano part on this track unlike most anything that Moreland has done. It sounds like a reminder of the past, but there’s optimism in its three note progression. Someone significant has grown distant, and the narrator wants to reconnect. It’s not about rekindling something that’s gone, it’s about remembering the things that made that relationship important and finding hope in the memory alone.
“And tell me when you look into my eyes / Do you still see a soul you recognize? / These Golden gods keep telling me their lies / But I just want to be true / I just want to love you”
"Break My Heart Sweetly"From: 'In the Throes' (2013)
The narrator has been fighting a crush because he can’t fathom that someone would reciprocate his feelings. But he’s relenting, now, and begging for care. He’s chased the feeling before and it’s never worked out. Still, he feels the way that he feels and pleads for compassion.
“There’s a scar on my soul / So let me down easy / Break my heart sweetly / Like you always do / I guess I can’t let go / Til you wreck me completely / Break my heart sweetly / Drape me in blue”
"Sallisaw Blue"From: 'Big Bad Luv' (2017)
One of Moreland’s few upbeat, driving tracks, the “Sallisaw Blue” harmonica recalls Todd Snider, and the lyrics are the closest that Moreland ever came to a John Prine song. It’s an apathetic literal and figurative trek through America’s heartland.
“Sippin' cold medicine / Ruinin' our lives / Slummin' I-40 with American songs / They can bury our bodies in American wrongs / It’s no use / God bless these blues / Let’s get wrecked and bruised and battered.”
"Gospel"From: 'In the Throes' (2013)
Visualizing the life you want can be freeing and hopeful. Achieving it can often seem daunting, but seeing that other side allows optimism, however fleeting. “Gospel” sounds as hopeful as its lyrics, and even if only for a moment, Moreland allows listeners a chance to catch their breath.
“I want to set fear on fire and give dreaming a fair shot / And never give up whether anybody cares or not.”
"Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore"From: 'In the Throes' (2013)
Music is a fickle business, and often, the path to success has as much to do with who you know as it does with talent. There’s surely a lot of incredibly talented songwriters across the world that thought “three chords and the truth” was the path to success, but Moreland wrote these lyrics far from Nashville in his native state of Oklahoma. Often, the path to success has a much different view from that many miles away.
In 2016, Sadler Vaden of Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit covered this one for his sophomore, eponymous record. Vaden’s version reimagined the original with a little more glam rock angst, something that fit perfectly on his own album.
“One for the money / Four on the floor / You we’re born last week with your foot in the door / I heard truth is what songs are for / Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore.”
"Heart's Too Heavy"From: 'High on Tulsa Heat' (2015)
“Heart’s Too Heavy” is the Moreland song that sounds like it would have been the most natural fit on mainstream country radio—the chord progressions, the lyric structure and the pedal steel were a perfect fit for a hit, if only anyone gave a damn about songs anymore.
“And I’m pulling up devils from the long dark past / And the pain starts piling up too fast / I can pin down the minute that I lost my buzz / Thought I was somebody nobody could love.”