It’s almost noon on a Monday when John Calvin Abney wakes up from some much-needed sleep. He’d played a show in Sheffield, Alabama, hours before and stayed at a buddy’s place for the night. “I slept in like crazy,” he says in a follow-up text ahead of our interview. “[The] tour is a kick in the head.” He’s on the road about 250 days out of the year, between headlining his own tours and playing with fellow Tulsa native John Moreland.
This fall, Abney is touring in support of his latest, self-produced LP,Safe Passage. “It’s a record for new beginnings and change,” he says. He also describes it as an “exploration of happiness and self-acceptance and grace.” An introspective album, the lead single “Turn Again” is a beautiful, country-folk-driven tune about steering clear of the bad habits we pick up after experiencing loss and grief. The chorus goes: “And if you find yourself turning/ Back to the places you've been/Then turn again.” The whole album follows this mantra of navigating through sadness to find the light at the end.
The 30-year-old multi-instrumentalist’s silhouette resembles that of an early Bob Dylan as he usually sits atop a stool onstage — lights bouncing off his curly hair, a harmonica on a neck holder and an acoustic guitar across his lap. He also plays country guitar, jazz guitar, the keyboard and drums. But his music is exactly his own, although he does cite Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracksas a personal favorite.
Recorded at Ramble Creek Studios in Austin, the 10-track Safe Passage is one of those albums that makes a perfect soundtrack to a rainy day, loaded with Abney’s soft and soothing vocals over pop-tinged roots, and you can’t help but start feeling good when you hear it.
And Abney’s ties to Texas don’t stop at that Austin recording studio. He used to tour with longtime friend and Denton musician Daniel Markham, and frequents clubs like Dan’s Silverleaf as often as he can. "When I go to Dan’s, there’s always someone I know there," he says. He also mentions longtime Denton band Slobberbone as a local favorite. And during his college days, he says he and his friends would make the long drive from the University of Oklahoma to Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton to see punk bands like Giant Dog.
Abney even plays drums in a punk band when he finds the time. In fact, it led to the singer-songwriter’s current career. “A friend of mine, Camille Harp, a longtime friend, saw me play with my punk band at the time,” he says. “She asked me to play guitar with her, and she was a country singer. I only had a week to play the songs. We ended up playing for years. And from then on, I’ve been writing my own music.”
Although Abney is enjoying a successful solo career, he lends his talent over to others frequently. “I like to do session work, to help people. I’ve been doing a lot of producing. I like to arrange, compose and produce,” he says. Earlier this year, the musician grabbed his synth, keyboard and various guitars and percussion and teamed up with Denton’s The Echo Lab and its co-owner Matt Pence to record an album with Moreland, due out in March, titledLP 5. The album also includes collaborations with Bonnie Whitmore and Will Johnson.
Abney makes his way back to North Texas this Sunday afternoon for an intimate show that also features The Reverent Few and Brent Cowles. Twangville, a music blog for Americana, roots, folk and alt-country, hosts the show that takes place at a location only described as “in Lower Greenville.” Details on where to find the venue are given upon RSVP to the event. But Abney hints at its digs: "It’s a community-oriented space for arts and for music. I really love venues like this. They’re good. You can just play for people who genuinely want to listen, without TVs on."
Abney appreciates more and more that he’s able to travel the country and play his songs. He doesn’t need much, and as long as he can get by, he’s happy. “I have food, I have shelter and I can go to the dentist,” he says. “I want people to know how thankful I am that I’m there singing in their town. They feed me and they put me up and give me beer and I’m beyond thankful.”Diamond Rodrigue