Interview: John Calvin Abney on John Moreland, Scrappy Coyote Pups, Family Advice & Oklahoma Landscapes
When Americana Highways flagged down John Calvin Abney, John Moreland’s guitarist with an upcoming album of his own, Coyote (Black Mesa Records) it was in the middle of a lot of travel and he and the band were handling some unintended bumps in the road.
“I was in Indianapolis last night,” he said, “and I’m currently catching a ride down to Chattanooga on the way to Nashville. Last night I had to open the sold out show for Deer Tick, and come out and tell everybody I’m not freaking John Moreland, because he was sick with the flu! Everyone was really great, mostly everyone understood that John was sick and I was filling in for him, and Deer Tick was really awesome. It was packed. We’ve been touring nonstop since I don’t remember when.”
I was wondering about his history with John Moreland. “John and I have known each other for 5 years, we were buddies in the music scene. We recorded Moreland’s High on Tulsa Heat (Last Chance Records) album together in his parents’ living room. I co-wrote the song “High on Tulsa Heat” with him, I helped write the second verse, and we engineered that record together. We lived for a week in that house recording that record together. He’s one of my best friends. We click together musically. We’re huge James McMurtry fans, by the way. That tour with him earlier this spring was fun. (Read about that tour by clicking any of these bolded words right here.)”
In recalling how he became a regular member of Moreland’s band, Abney told the story. “I’d been playing with Samantha Crain for a number of years but I was starting to focus on some of my own stuff. One day about a year and a half ago I was opening for John, and told him after the show that if he ever needed a guitar player, to give me a call. So he called me one night at 2:00 in the morning a few weeks later, and he said “Hey. Were you serious about playing guitar with me?” And I said “yeah.” So he drove from Tulsa to Norman the next day and we played and he called me the next day and said I got the gig full time. Now we’re best friends.” Best friends and apparently night owls who make phone calls casually at 2am! Well, Abney DID say to call if he ever needed a guitar player….
Abney identifies with Oklahoma, and shares why he considers it complex and beautiful. “The landscape is pretty and interesting. From the far eastern side are the Kiamichi mountains, rolling hills, beautiful rock formations and arroyos. It’s the start of the foothills of the Ozarks there. From Tahlequah all the way down it is unbelievably pretty. Then it opens up into the wide-open space of the prairie lands. Then if you take the Texas pan handle it goes from farmland to Black Mesa –that’s the tallest point in Oklahoma, well it isn’t that tall. But it’s beautiful! It’s preparing you for your trip into the southwest which becomes drier and drier the further you go. The landscape is really diverse and that makes it inspiring. Everyone talks about the red clay, the red dirt, that’s an easy catch to see when you’re there, all the water in the summertime turns red, all the lakes turn red. It’s crazy amazing.“
I pressed him about the way this natural beauty works its way into his music and songwriting. “I hearken back to the fact that there’s a lot of wide open space in Oklahoma, and it’s easy to relate to that in song, especially if you’re writing disparate folk tunes or even more stripped down arrangements. And lyrically it resonates, because everything is such a pretty color. People sometimes skip over Oklahoma but a lot of people don’t know how beautiful it is, they think it’s like “Nebraska plus” or “Kansas plus.” Those are beautiful states too, but Oklahoma has more to it.”
While we’re on the subject, Abney describes the Oklahoma music scene. “We’ve got the Red Dirt, and the Texas-Oklahoma country scene, there are garage rock and psych musicians, and a hard core scene. There’s also the legendary Tulsa sound — Dwight Twilly, Leon Russell and J.J. Cale; Shelters Records people; and the lingering influences these guy had. Also bleed over Americana, experimental and hip hop too. There’s a very wide range of styles, and that helps people spread outside their genres.”
In his upcoming release Coyote, there is a line about “the kickers and the songbirds” in his song, “Get Your House in Order.” I asked him to elaborate about what that means. “Gram Parsons’ song “Grievous Angel” has that line: “you’re out here with the kickers and the truckers.” It’s about my rowdy friends. A kick can be a dive bar; kickers are my rowdy guy friends and the songbirds are my rowdy girl friends. Back in Oklahoma it’s a tight knit group of musicians, everybody is really interested in what everyone’s doing, people are supportive and lift each other up, I feel it a lot. I wrote that verse thinking of how a couple loved ones and a girlfriend tried to tell me I ought to get a “straight job” instead of playing music. It’s hard to know how to take that, because this is what I do. I put my focus and my heart in my work. If I can eat and pay my bills and nobody’s turning me into collections I think I’m okay. I did four years of touring making no money at all, but now I am making a living, I can make a living even if I’m touring solo, and that’s partly because you figure out easier ways to do it every time you go out.”
“You have to pace yourself on the road. It’s important to treat yourself and take care of yourself but it’s also important that you mind your wallet and mind your metal health. Your mental health is paramount when you’re traveling on the road. Anyone who’s ever toured by themselves will tell you it can be the darkest f-ing thing. You’re by yourself for like a month and it’s easy for your mind to wander. You need to be aware of it and it takes some experience and some fortitude to master that.”
“But back to the kickers and the songbirds – at the last part the lines are “you had a feeling I’d fail if I tried, I said “hello Tennessee,” and never stood in line.” I wanted to move to Nashville to be a side guy but I stayed in Oklahoma to be John’s side guy and we ended up playing on the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville! It’s like my unintentional retribution to those people who thought I wasn’t going to be able to do anything. My grandma when I was 15 told me I should be a doctor or a lawyer, and I told her I wanted to be a guitar player, and she went white as a ghost. But every single year, she writes me a letter – every single year since I was 15 – to tell me how sorry she is that she said that, because she realizes I found my passion, and she always ends it, every single time with “what was I thinking, a doctor or a lawyer!” Those lines are about all my friends who are going through the same kinds of thing.”
““Get Your House in Order,” that was my grandpa’s saying. It was his way of saying “get your act together” if somebody lost a job, a friend, or a lover, and if we were dwelling on it, and sulking about it, he’d say “you better get your house in order.” After my grandpa passed away, my mom started saying it to me. I might be upset about something, she’s say “that’s okay” but then if I was still dwelling on it a week later, she’d say, “You better get your house in order.” So that’s what that song is about.”
Shonna Tucker, formerly of the Drive-By-Truckers, played bass on the album. Because I was curious about how Abney got connected with her, he told stories of their common musical histories. “She is one of my best friends on the planet. She worked on Chris Porter’s record Porter and the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes, he was in a band called “the Back Row Baptists,” and he just went by “Porter” for a long time. He toured with Jon Dee Graham, worked with the Mastersons, he’s an Alabama boy who made his way into Austin, Texas.”
“As a side note, he was one of our close friends. He passed away a couple years back, we miss him.“
“So Porter had called me out of the blue one morning, we had worked together a lot, he wanted me to be on his record down in Austin. Will Johnson from Centromatic produced and played drums– he used to be in Monsters of Folk, now he’s in Marie/Lepanto– a progenitor alt-country guy. Me, Will Johnson, Shonna Tucker and Chris were in the studio, and we became really close, we’re cosmic buddies. We stay in touch, long story short, I wanted her in my record, I drove out to Alabama to rehearse with her. She’s making a new record herself. She’s excellent.”
Abney offers the rest of the album crew: “Paddy Ryan is the drummer; he is the drummer for John Moreland’s band, and Megan Palmer played fiddle and shared piano duties. We recorded it at Fellowship Hall, the same place John did the Big Bad Luv recording, in Little Rock, AR. Jason Weinheimer engineered it, and I self-produced it.”
Before it was time to part, Abney had many interesting and funny reasons for why he named his album Coyote. “Oh there are multiple reasons for the name. First is just a result of van jokes. John [Moreland] and I were opening for Shovels and Rope a couple years ago and, you have to understand, when you’re on the road, in the van sometimes you just start saying stuff that’s basically gibberish, just passing the time, and I said “Coyote Trigger” in that context. I have a long list of funny nicknames my friends have for me, and sometimes I go back through them as a joke, and when I was thinking of the name for the album, I remembered “Coyote Trigger” and the way John had started introducing me, even onstage, as “Coyote Trigger.” But another reason is that on Tom Petty’s record Highway Companion there’s a song called “Flirting with Time,” and the opening line is “a coyote ran across the road, on the move without a home, the flash of light reminded of you,” that is one of my favorite records, and it just hit me as significant.”
“I also feel like a coyote is a scrappy little bastard, they are kind of loners, they’re scavengers, they’re just trying their best with what they’ve been given. They’re just running around, being wild dogs. I hate when people go around saying they have a spirit animal, that’s become such a meme in daily life, but I do feel like I found myself in such a scrappy little pup. I have been alone a lot. This record is a lot about being alone. Coyote is just about being alone and traveling and questioning everything you’ve been doing, wanting to be part of a pack. It’s a super bummer record, but I feel like it has a sweetness too. The line is so unbelievably thin between being bummed out and being joyful and most songwriters do their best to straddle that line.”
Check out John Calvin Abney’s upcoming release, Coyote, right here.