For the past decade, John Calvin Abney has made a name for himself as a solo artist and sought-after sideman. He’s toured as lead guitarist for fellow Oklahoman John Moreland, recording with him on his last two acclaimed albums, and in between, the prolific Abney found time to add another impressive record to his own catalog (2016’s Far Cries And Close Calls), supporting the release with a run of solo shows during a whirlwind year filled with as much struggle as success. Abney’s new full-length, Coyote (out May 18 on Black Mesa Records), draws from this tumultuous time, fearlessly staring down distance, isolation and fading love, as well as loss, fear and disassociation from the self.
“In the last year, I was confronted with a series of events that took the breath out of me,” Abney says. “I lost some dear friends to terrible accidents. I went through a breakup and moved to another town. My grandmother passed away. I was having some minor health issues glued together by anxiety, and there was no time to see a doctor. So much was happening. I wanted to be a million places at once, but I was barely able to be present where I was. I knew I had to figure out how to cope, how to adapt and keep moving forward.”
The title Coyote—taken from a joke nickname given to Abney by bandmates and friends—speaks to the songwriter’s dogged persistence. “Moreland introduced me as ‘Coyote Trigger’ onstage a couple times, I thought it was hilarious—the idea of me as this wild pup running around with big hair and tight jeans and cowboy boots. But later, when I was thinking about what to call this new record, it hit me like a spark. To figure out how to deal with all these things I’d never dealt with, I had to think on my feet, to be scrappy and cunning—I was like a coyote out on the road, confused, wounded and fighting to figure out a way.”
Working on Coyote with ace musicians Shonna Tucker (ex-Drive-By Truckers) on bass, Megan Palmer on keyboards and violin, and Paddy Ryan on drums, Abney crafted ten songs of unwavering beauty and insight, marrying languorous soundscapes to bittersweet reflections on losing what matters most, and the kind of resilience necessary to come out whole on the other side.
“I was writing a lot in the back of the van and the hotels I was staying in,” Abney says. “Though I wasn’t staying up all night and drinking a pot of coffee every three hours to try to write a record—I wasn’t rushing myself. I was just slowly working through everything. It helped keep me going.”
While Abney took his time writing Coyote, the recording process at Fellowship Hall Sound in Little Rock, Ark., was an intense three-day sprint—which is the way Abney prefers it. “I like to work fast so I don’t second-guess anything,” he says. Despite the rapid-fire sessions, Coyote boasts thoughtful arrangements—featuring Abney on piano, organ, guitar and pedal steel—that put his gorgeous melodies and heartfelt lyrics front and center. His association with Moreland might have fans expecting something akin to Americana, but the new record isn’t so easily hemmed into that genre, venturing frequently into sounds that are more dreamy and melancholy.
“For years, I’d record on cassette tape in my bedroom, humming softly to myself,” Abney says. “I still find solace in that kind of approach, though I couldn’t quite get the sound I wanted alone in my bedroom. Coyote is a step toward the dreamier pop and stripped-down compositions I was imagining on those tapes.”
Abney has the uncanny ability to paint vivid pictures with his his lyrics and music, evoking turquoise, topaz and emerald to color the album’s visions of a desert landscape. Still, his home state unceasingly tugs at him in the songs: “Remember those days of Oklahoma rain / When it was all ours,” he sings on the pensive “Souvenir Waltz.” “Honey do you know me or did you just forget?” he asks on “South Yale Special,” pondering how time apart can damage once tight relationships. “Sundowner” plumbs the depths of sorrow before the album downshifts into its lullaby of a closing instrumental, “Leslie Lane,” named after the street in Norman, Okla., where Abney moved in with friends to right the ship following his recent trials. His distinctive writing and meditative vocals let the listener feel every bump in the road, every lonely tear or heartwarming reunion.
As Abney gears up for the release of Coyote and a lengthy supporting tour, he finds himself as steeled and resourceful as ever. No matter where his journey takes him, whatever the twists or hardships, he’s ready—like the scrappy and unrelenting canine that inspired his nickname—to push on through, finding more fodder out there for his unforgettable songs along the way.
Nowadays, John Calvin Abney knows to look for the quiet.
Through a decade’s worth of maturation, thousands of shows, and hundreds of thousands of miles, Abney’s in-between moments are spent in thought, putting words and composition to tape.
He spent much of 2017 on the road, whether on guitar and keys for John Moreland or on solo trips across the country to play and to reconnect with a vast network of musical friends across the country. Highlights from the whirlwind year include performing as Moreland's dedicated sideman at the legendary Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry, and accompanying Moreland and John Prine for an encore song in Birmingham, Alabama.
Meanwhile, Abney has recorded a personal album of reflections on change and realization, titled “Coyote,” at Fellowship Hall Sound in Little Rock. He performed many of the instruments, while calling in friends Shonna Tucker on bass, Paddy Ryan on drums, and Megan Palmer on violin and keys. The album will be released in May 2018 and is the anticipated follow-up to Abney’s 2016 LP, “Far Cries and Close Calls,” a single from which PopMatters.com called “instantly memorable” and that drew rightful comparisons to longtime influence Elliott Smith.
His fans may know him for his freneticism onstage as a side man, or for being a preternaturally gifted and joyful instrumentalist, but Abney’s songwriting has evolved swiftly over the course of a few short years. He’s prolific, having released new and sometimes vastly different work every year except 2017, and that pause is key.
“Coyote” has a distinct sense of place, of loneliness and love. The album is spacious and steady, and it comes at the heels of Abney taking a much-needed breath to process those experiences, a journey listeners can hear in real time.
The record opens with the twinkling standout “Always Enough,” establishing the theme of wincing optimism that carries through the rest of “Coyote.” “My blood was red, but I worried it black / Plans to ashes, promises to dust,” he sings, before resolving with, “There’s nowhere to go but up from here.” The rest of side A meanders with Abney: “Cowboys and Canyon Queens” has him looking back at Oklahoma—and all the gravity that entails—while the lazy shuffle “Get Your House in Order” has a humorous bent, eyeing the similarities between Abney and his travel-weary friends.
Later, “South Yale Special” marks a departure from Tulsa and a subsequent period of transience. The simple organ arrangements and pedal steel on “Sundowner” haunt the crushing lament on missing someone, “I’d kill all these miles for you.” And finally, Abney finds himself at home on “Leslie Lane,” a string-heavy, instrumental lullaby.
In all the madness, Abney seems to have found moments of calm where none was apparent. And on “Coyote,” he’s chronicled that search and his resolutions with a hushed clarity.