John Moreland has been making records for nearly a decade. But slip on his new album, “Big Bad Luv” — specifically the leadoff track, “Sallisaw Blue” — and what you hear is the sound of an artist fully announcing his arrival.
The sound is rootsy with a vocal accent caught somewhere between vintage Steve Earle and 1970s-era Billy Gibbons along with an instrumental stride owing to everything from the Rev. Gary Davis to the North Mississippi All Stars. But as organic and revealing as the music is, there remains an immediacy borrowed from another era entirely: Moreland’s own punk rock past.
Toss all that together, and you have the rough-cut refinement of a Texas born, Tulsa-bred song stylist with a knack for remarkable instinct and reflection in the narrative end of his songs. Oh, and there is the matter of a childhood spent in Northern Kentucky.
“Moreland is uninterested in indictments,” Amanda Petrusich writes in the current issue of the New Yorker. “There are no heroes or villains, he suggests, just folks making their way through the world the best they can.”
“Songwriting is not necessarily something that will happen to me where I go, ‘I need to put that into the lyrics of a song,’” Moreland said in a phone interview Monday. “Nothing hardly ever comes about that way. It’s more about feeling, like the need to have to say something but not being sure what it is. It’s a process of reflecting and blurting it all out. That’s kind of what songwriting has to do.”
Still, there is no denying the might behind the music on “Big Bad Luv.” Unlike the leaner, more folk-rooted direction of his first three albums and subsequent tours that usually had Moreland performing as a solo acoustic artist, the new record is more electric and far more ensemble-driven.
“I don’t know if I had a specific sound in mind,” he said. “I vaguely had an idea that I wanted it to be more rock ’n’ roll this time. But that was really it. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to plan stuff like that. That rarely works out for me. I find it a lot more satisfying to just go in with no plan and see what happens.
“I just wanted to write songs that felt true to my life, songs that I felt good about. But I definitely knew that I wanted to record it a little differently from what I’ve done on the last couple of records. I knew I wanted to bring a band into a more legit studio and do it that way. My last couple of records were recorded in houses, with me playing most of the instruments myself. This time I got a band together and we went into a studio in Little Rock, Ark., and recorded mostly live. That was a total change of pace, but it was really good for me, I think.”
But if you think the country-friendly yet confidently rocking design of “Big Bad Luv” tunes like “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” and “Ain’t We Gold” are rooted purely in rustic tradition, know that a shadow of Moreland’s punk years plays out in the songs — mostly in their concise construction rather than through any upstart attitude.
“As I get older, I’m coming around to realizing how that 15-year-old punk rock kid is in there saying, ‘Get to the point and be done with it.’ That’s always how I’ve tried to write my songs. I don’t have much patience for extra, unnecessary stuff. I want to say what I need to say, try to pack a punch and then have it be over with.”
Before his punk tenure, and way before Moreland found “Big Bad Luv,” there was a period of nine years (from ages 1 to 10) he spent in Boone County. The Kentucky stay might not have been long enough to form a pronounced artistic impression, although Moreland offered one recollection that mixed rock ’n’ roll and aviation.
“I guess one of my first musical memories was from when we lived really close to the Cincinnati airport. My dad was kind of obsessed with airplanes, so we would sit there at the airport and watch the airplanes come down over our heads and land. We would listen to WEBN, which was classic rock back then — Tom Petty and stuff like that. We would sit there, listen to Tom Petty and just watch the planes land.”
If you go
What: Three-day music festival with multiple stages featuring Odesza, LCD Soundsystem, Weezer, Cage the Elephant, Sturgill Simpson, P.J. Harvey and many more.
When: July 14-16
Where: Waterfront Park, 300 E. River Rd. in Louisville