Recently, a Twitter user suggested that John Moreland may be in jeopardy of losing his title of country music’s saddest songwriter, and Moreland was fine with that. “Good. I ain’t country,” Moreland wrote in response, “and I ain’t sad.”
Over his first four albums, the raw heartache on Moreland’s records earned him the label of music’s “sad bastard,” a label that today he isn’t comfortable wearing.
“I feel like that’s one dimension of me and one dimension of my life and what I do,” he said in an interview with The Tribune last week.
His latest album, “Big Bad Luv,” is more of a journey through romantic redemption for Moreland, who began writing the album about the time he met the woman who would become his wife.
“It documents this transition in my life from well before I was married and I felt like I didn’t really have a sense of who I was or a sense of belonging and then this transition to where I’m at now, which is a very different place,” he said.
“Every Kind of Wrong,” one of the first tracks he wrote for the record, maps a disintegrating relationship. As the record evolves, it tracks a recovery, ending in the song “Latchkey Kid,” written when Moreland was first long-distance-dating his future wife and helped along by some herbal aids.
“I was aware that was happening and I felt like I was in uncharted territory for me,” he said. “I was in California and I ate a pot brownie and I was stoned out of my mind, losing my s--- for 24 hours, and just started writing.”
Moreland started his first band as a 13-year-old in Oklahoma. For the next half-dozen years he played in a handful of punk and hardcore bands at any given time, until he had had enough.
“By the time I was 19 or 20, I was just kind of burned out and I felt like it didn’t feel exciting to me anymore, so I kind of went on this quest for music that would make me excited again, and I seemed to find it in the stuff that my dad listened to when I was a kid, Neil Young and [Creedence Clearwater Revival] and Tom Petty,” he said. “That led me back into roots rock and I got way into Steve Earle and through Steve Earle and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.”
Van Zandt’s unflinchingly honest songwriting is reflected in Moreland’s work.
Vocally, Moreland lives in that dark neighborhood between Bruce Springsteen’s grittier range and Tom Waits on a good day. His voice is deep, gruff and soulful.
Lyrically, what he does is very different. Instead of dressing up his emotion in fictional narratives like many songwriters, Moreland rips open his chest and shows you what’s inside on virtually every song. It gives his music a visceral honesty that can’t be faked, because he’s lived it.
“My songs are mostly autobiographical,” he said in a recent interview. “Every detail doesn’t have to be literally true. You can take some liberties if it helps you convey what you’re trying to convey. But that being said, most of my songs are autobiographical.”
Now, though, with his life on an upswing, you might think it becomes a burden to revisit the bleakness of his earlier work, but Moreland says he doesn’t mind it at all.
“It still feels very freeing and therapeutic, just like it did when I wrote it,” he said. “It’s not where I’m at right now, but your songs kind of take different meanings as they age. And the emotion of it is still a real thing that I have dealt with in my life and I can still relate to it in that way, on that level.”
With Christian Lee Hutson
When • Sunday, Aug. 6, 8 p.m.
Where • The State Room, 638 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18