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Alt-Country Singer John Moreland Offers a Lesson in Judgement

Proved wrong and loving it

Back in time, gun violence, post pandemic social scene, Optimist Hall, Waffle House
Aerin Spruill

“I’m so excited not to have plans tomorrow,” I lamented to my boyfriend after a long weekend of self-imposed overindulgence, followed by two “school night” commitments. 

“Well, we’ve got tickets to a show at Visulite tomorrow,” he responded. News to me, I thought to myself and proceeded to have a baby mental tantrum. I knew a hump day show for this nightlife owl would quickly devolve into a state of disrepair until the following Monday afternoon. Then I remembered that one of my girlfriends (who was also going to the show) was celebrating her birthday at midnight, which meant there was no escaping this one. 

He sent me the flyer from Visulite Theatre’s IG, a rudimentary graphic depicting John Moreland and special guest Caroline Spence in an annoyingly fuzzy typeface and an ’80s-style double-exposure image of who I assumed was John Moreland (you know, the kind with an ethereal-looking floating head?) smack dab in the middle of a plain white square backdrop. Enticing.

Don’t let my undeniable country twang fool you, if you’d asked me if I’d heard of Tulsa-born, “Americana and alt-country” singer/songwriter John Moreland before that day, I would’ve choked on my sweet tea and replied with one of my country ass colloquialisms, “I don’t know that man from Adam,” which, for those of you who don’t speak Southern Baptist, simply means I don’t know that person at all. 

Then I would’ve followed with some version of, “Have you seen Watchmen on HBO? Yes, I know its depiction of The Black Wall Street Massacre follows an alternate history but I still don’t want nothin’ to do with Tulsa.” 

Ask my friends, they’ll tell you. So I did what any sensible (read: a deep South skeptic from the sticks of NC) person would do, I Googled, “John Moreland on racism.”

I found an article on the first page of results, “How John Moreland Became Miranda Lambert’s Favorite Songwriter” from Rolling Stone. Sounds promising; Miranda seems to stay above the fray when it comes to controversy. And there I found my green light for attendance, a quote from Moreland, “I don’t believe in Satan. I think the devil is just anything that sucks. I think the devil is just like assholes and racists and homophobes: all the shitty things about the world.” 

Now if that didn’t make me want to finger-whistle, hoot, holler, and whatever else you do at a country show, I don’t know what would. 

It was chilly when the sun went down that evening, but standing in front of Visulite with all its “historical humility” as the taste of the Magners Irish Cider I just chugged hung on my lips, I felt oddly cozy.

The lobby is no frills, like the “vestibule” of an old church. Dust gathered in the corners, a single decorative rug far too small to make the space feel homey, an entryway table holding absolutely nothing with a few flyers for shows (most likely long past) hanging above it on the wall, and the light smell of mothballs in the air. All indicators that the message one needs to hear is inside, not seen on the outside. 

We entered quietly so as to not interrupt the scratchy-but-sweet-voiced Caroline Spence in the midst of telling a quite funny bit on how her next song was inspired by post-drunk feels. Same, girl. 

Spence was delightful, quirky, and charming, which made me wish we’d gotten there in time to see her whole set. But it came to an end shortly after we settled into stools on the edge of the bar. And soon after, a quiet John Moreland stepped through the red curtain and beneath a panel of Austrian scalloped curtains walking toward a chair on center stage.

A gentle giant and man of few words, Moreland’s calm demeanor, and humble presence performed the only introduction needed as he sat down, quietly tuned his guitar, and maybe mumbled a few discernible words of thanks. A single disco ball hanging over the crowd caught my gaze spinning slightly as he twisted and plucked. A couple of intentional strums and I knew to return my gaze as Moreland began to play “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars.” 

The moment you hear his husky twang you know he can carry a tune, but its genteel nature is irresistible, drawing you in as if he’s whispering a melancholic, earnest, and contemplative letter into your ear. 

Though concerned he would be “whistling a different tune,” my trepidations were put to ease from the outset and before you knew it, I was heading to the swag table to buy the boyfriend High on Tulsa Heat on vinyl. Sometimes stepping outside of my comfort zone has its rewards.

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