OK Sessions: A Conversation with John Calvin Abney
John Calvin Abney is sitting at a table at Scottie’s Deli on 23rd Street in Oklahoma City, reminiscing over a black bean sandwich and pasta salad, wearing a black T-shirt and a flannel with a hole in the elbow.
He’s taking a short break after soundchecking for his record release show at the Blue Door, talking about life on the road, missing Oklahoma, and the future ahead of him. Abney released his new record Coyote on May 18, and he’s already receiving a lot of hype, but, more importantly, Abney feels like he’s found his sound.
“I think it’s my first full step into finding my individual voice as a musician and as an artist,” Abney said.
In Coyote, Abney tackles heartbreak, homesickness, and the loss of a close friend. He was recently listed in Rolling Stone as one of the top ten country artists of the year.
When asked about the shoutout, Abney chuckled and said, “Yeah, the Rolling Stone thing, I didn’t expect. It came kind of out of the blue. I just got a call that was like ‘hey you’re getting interviewed by Rolling Stone,’ and I was like ‘oh my god.’ It was a dream. It was far out.”
This past year certainly hasn’t been boring for Abney. In addition to the Rolling Stone shout-out, he’s been traveling with his friend John Moreland and sat beside him in his NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Abney said he feels like he’s constantly learning from Moreland, and Moreland gives him room to express himself.
“We’re just buddies,” Abney said. “We’re best friends, and we get to play good music together. I mean, that’s just the tops.”
Despite all the opportunities to come his way, Abney said he still feels critical of himself, but he reminds himself that his dreams have become reality.
“Whenever I get down on myself, I have to be like, ‘hey, I’ve done some cool shit’,” he said.
Coyote – an album about dealing with life
Abney opens up about Coyote, a record that touches on trust, worry, and “Oklahoma rain.”
“It’s like I’m aging into my own realm, which feels good,” he said. “It helped me put down a lot of wild feelings and desperate feelings, scary feelings.
The opening lyric of the song “Cowboys and Canyon Queens” is “I miss Oklahoma,” and that rings true for Abney, seeing as he’s gone from Oklahoma eight months of the year. He wrote the song in a hotel room in California, pondering the natural disasters of the world with the lines “everywhere on fire or under the sea, the earth is shaking tornado alley. I’m often scared home won’t be there waiting for me.”
In the song, Abney describes the Oklahoma landscape as “boundless rolling land,” and cracks a joke about the ongoing construction of I-35.
Abney said, to him, the songs are about reminding him what home feels like.
“I feel like there’s a sentiment and an emotion and a direction I’m heading in that I can just hope, within the millions of hopes afloat in the ether, that somebody can relate to one of those songs and maybe see what I’m feeling and think, ‘oh, I’m not so alone in this perspective, this point of view, the way I see the world,’” he said.
A crowded room, a gig with character
The gig is about to start over at the Blue Door. With rain falling and the threat of a tornado outside, the room inside is packed with listeners, and the walls are covered with concert posters dating back decades.
Abney talks about his love for the Blue Door venue. He says he feels welcome there, like people are really there to listen. He says the local listening room preserves the art of the song.
“When you buy a ticket the Blue Door, you don’t go to be on your phone and talk to your buddy,” he said. “You go to maybe buy a drink and then a Topo Chico and listen to some music and experience the world through another artist’s eyes for an hour or two.”
Hanging above the iconic blue door (for which the venue is named) is a box guitar, trumpet, banjo, Christmas lights, and a Route 66 road sign. In the back room, where Abney sets up his pins, stickers, t shirts, and albums for sale, the walls are covered in stickers with messages like “make jobs not war,” and “people over profit.”
Guests are milling around, waiting for the show to begin, bringing in 6-packs of beer from their cars and taking their seats in foldable chairs and on flannel couches.
Folk singer Samantha Crain opens the show, cracking self-deprecating jokes about hotel points, tax returns, and catering to dietary restrictions. She earns some laughs from the audience members, most of whom are sipping from their drinks and intently listening to every note, every lyric, every joke.
Crain welcomes Abney to the stage, who is joined by Kyle Reid on the slide guitar, Johnny Carlton on bass, and Steve Boaz on drums. Abney sips from a glass of wine, which an audience member eventually tops off for him, jokes about not having a set list, and talks about a recent dramatic experience with an Über driver.
He tells the story behind his new song, ”The South Yale Special,” which was written at a Route 66 diner while Abney was dealing with the death of his friend and fellow artist Chris Porter. The song starts with the lyric, “Corner diner, coffee and gin.”
Abney recalled a recent Oklahoma Gazette article by Ben Luschen, which quoted him saying, “I ordered the daily special once, had some drinks, and then wrote a terribly sad song.” To the Blue Door audience, Abney laughed and said “he’s right!”
Keep Runnin’, Coyote
From touring with John Moreland, to being a part of an NPR tiny desk concert, to releasing his new record, Abney said the past year has felt surreal.
“Now I’m like, is this Vanilla Sky?” Abney said. “Is this a simulation? Am I fifteen and in a constructed universe? Is this just a dream world? All of a sudden, I’m going to wake up and be in like, a pod, being harvested by robots.”
Abney closed the conversation with the following thoughts before packing up his dinner at Scottie’s and driving back to the Blue Door.
“Go see shows. Support your friends. Support music. Support art. Love one another. Take care of each other. Spay and neuter your pets.”