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.
Tulsa, Oklahoma-based songwriter John Calvin Abney has had a busy few years. In the past two and a half years, he has played over 400 shows, driven over 100,000 miles, released his critically acclaimed debut album Better Luck and two EPs – Empty Candles and Vice Versa Suite – along with performing as a sideman for acts like Samantha Crain, John Moreland, and The Damn Quails. By the end of 2015, he was tired.
By December of 2015, he had an album’s worth of songs ready to record and he headed into the studio, but fate had different plans. Following his intuition, Abney cancelled the sessions. “I left in the middle of the recording session and went to Colorado at the beginning of January. I took all my 4 track recording gear to the mountain and I was going to record the record by myself up there. But I didn’t record a single note. I actually ended up writing 20 new songs.”
Two months later, Abney took another crack at his sophomore album. This time, he hit a home run. “Everyone was just miraculously free for three days. And so we recorded those days and it was just magic. When I came off the mountain, I had new songs, a new perspective. We finished the whole record in three days. It’s kind of cosmic how it turned out. It felt like a second chance.”
The result is Far Cries And Close Calls, out September 23rd on Horton Records - a lean ten-song set that is both a travelogue and a deeply personal recitation of missteps and disappointments. It is a documentary-style take on the life of a touring musician stripped of all romanticism and self-pity. “The songs have to do with traveling and failing and heavy uncertainty, shooting for the moon and missing the mark altogether.” You have a sense of what you’re getting into from the first lines of album opener “Beauty Seldom Seen”: “It’s a bad string of failures and bad news bearers, broken testimonies at bars.”
Far Cries And Close Calls is far from a mopey record, however. The album is brimming with energy and catharsis - combining the introspection and harmonic inventiveness of Elliott Smith with the wit and energy of Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan. As Abney puts it: “These songs that represent all this sadness became songs of jubilation for me. I can’t remember the dripping sadness that the songs are about as much as I remember how much fun and how much unbelieveable cosmic energy there was in the room during the recording of that record.”
While songs like “Beauty Seldom Seen” and “Impostor” give us a window into Abney’s dark nights of the soul, upbeat rockers like “Goodbye Temporarily” and “Weekly Rate Palace” show the side of Abney that wakes up the next day to drive another 6 hours and play yet another show. It’s this duality that makes Far Cries And Close Calls a transcendent record.
To Abney, the circumstances around the recording of Far Cries And Close Calls might feel like fate or magic. the But the true magic of this record is Abney’s deft execution of a trick employed by all great entertainers - the transformation of pain into joy.
John Calvin Abney, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, now stands on stage, front and center.
After years of work as a notable sideman (guitar, pedal steel, keys, drums), he has just released his second full CD and it’s one that is surely destined to keep him out front … and on the road.
During his years of extensive touring, both solo and in a backup role, he was constantly observing everyone and everything around him. His ability to retain what he heard and saw, then work with it to really try and understand what it all means, has resulted in him becoming one of America’s newest literary songwriters.
Abney first put in the work to develop his ability to perform with a variety of musical instruments before turning to writing. That allowed him to then focus entirely on his words and how to form them into the stories he was now bursting to tell.
He has since risen toward the top of the musical landscape in Oklahoma and surrounding region. That’s saying a lot if you understand the importance of musical settings.
Oklahoma is where the earthy, music of the people, was formed. The birthplace of the red-dirt music that combines folk, Americana, rock, and roots music that never plays down to the listeners. It’s rocking, uplifting music, that also recognizes that life is more hard work than partying, so it’s actually a celebration of life. That’s where Abney comes back into the picture. His songs reflect a joyful appreciation for the human spirit.
Long a cult favorite he is now set to widen his musical circle with the acceptance of the new CD, Far Cries and Close Calls. The songs on it seamlessly move the listener through time and space and, more than any other CD of late, is noted for being one that can be listened to repeatedly without getting tired of it. That’s because you will pick up two or three new things each time you play it.
While it’s the stories that have become the important thing for Abney he also understands that they have to be delivered in certain, specific, ways in order for people to want to listen to them. Now we get to rock and roll.
According to Abney, “Rock and roll is not characterized by what it sounds like, but what it means to you.” So, when his band is playing full-out rock and roll, his stories and philosophy of life are still subversively working their way into the ears of the audience.
So, he’s a literate songwriter, and an accomplished musician, but he’s also a great performer. What you get each night is really performance art.
There’s no rushing from one song to another. He has those stories from the road to tell, he has his ideas on life and what it’s all about to relay. And he wants to know each crowd. He doesn’t just ask a question and rush ahead. He waits for an answer. He’s not in a hurry to play his next song. He knows what it is. He knows where he’s going. But, he wants to enjoy the ride. And he does everything he can to see that the audience enjoys the ride, too.
John Calvin Abney, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, now stands on stage, front and center.