Oklahoma has produced some of the best roots music in recent years. Think John Moreland, John Fullbright, Michael McClure, Jason Boland, Turnpike Troubadours, and Carter Sampson to name a few. Yes, some notices that John Calvin Abney was missing from that short list. He is the multi-instrumentalist, solo artist, and key sideman for John Moreland who has just released his fifth solo album, the softly textured, lush, engaging Familiar Ground. Moreland has his own LP5 released this past February and Abney had a busy spring lined up thanks to his day job as s guitar player, but the pandemic obliterated those plans in March. That’s when he began working on a new batch of his own songs that formed the beginnings for this album as Moreland provided instrumental assistance This follows Abney’s excellent release from last year Safe Passage.
You may have already heard the hopeful single, drawn ostensibly from the pandemic, “When This Blows Over,” which poses the question over flourishes of pedal steel – When this is all over, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? His answer, as he dreams of San Francisco, is that “I’m coming to see you again.” The hope comes in the line – “We can summer together if we can winter this.” In a thematic way, the nine songs speak to acceptance of our own mortality and the resilience to weather various storms. Those thoughts are found in so many of the songs here. From “Shine Like a Friend” we have this verse – “Everyone sees/someone in the distance/far out of reach with their own lives…We’re stuck between /coming and going/forever taking leave, saying goodbye”. From “Evening Tide” we have – “Clarity came/like a hurricane/I looked for you in a steep ravine.’
Abney shaped each track using a ten-year-old iMac, writing on guitar, piano, and Mellotron, then sent them over to Moreland, who would add drums and bass. They bounced the songs back and forth remotely between their home studios, with Abney playing piano and synthesizers and composing the strings that lend the record a dreamy, “big sky” feel. Yet, viewing the album credits reveals Whit Wright (pedal steel), Don Eanes (Rhodes, B3), and Abney’s son John Calvin Abney Jr. on acoustic guitar on the title track.
Abney talks about the sound of the album, “I feel like I had spent years accidentally obscuring parts of who I am through constant work and now, every single day heading forward, I find out a little bit more about myself. Familiar Ground’s a good step towards that because I’ve found that the softer, more contemplative compositions speak more to me as a person than earlier records I’ve made with bombastic arrangements. Those don’t speak to me as I am now, but of course, these things can always change.”
Abney’s diverse influences, from the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to contemporary peers like Laura Marling and Christian Lee Hutson to the surreal writing of Haruki Murakami, find their way into the lyrics. He titled this tune “The Contractor” for one who is obsessed with constantly working in order to put a past love out of mind – “One day/my breath will join the wind/I’ll cease to have been/’cept in what I build and bury.” The lyrics are often melancholy but there’s enough optimism to keep the string of songs imbued not only with a hushed musical elegance that runs from the instrumentation through his vocals, but, more importantly, lyrics that carry optimism, just when the listener may feel that resignation is setting in. Maybe the best example is the closer,” Tokyo City Rain,” which captures the vibe of Tokyo nightlife through peppy synthesizers. Providing symmetry with the opener, it’s as if he’s returned from this stay-at-home state – “When I returned / it felt like a dream / tracing tall buildings / in the summer steam.”
We continue to learn and to be impressed with how artists how dealt with this pandemic, finding ways to share thoughts and music, navigating their way through many obstacles to keep art alive. One wonders whether the recording industry, like many other businesses, will ever return to the old way of doing things. It will likely be a mix. Abney, and like-minded artists will lead the way.