“Endless Oklahoma sky” is a phrase John Moreland has never quite been able to shake. The Tulsa singer-songwriter first sang those words in 2008, when he released a song bearing those three words as its title. “It was just about my friends and local bands trying to make it,” Moreland told me last year about “Endless Oklahoma Sky,” one of the first times he ever tried writing about his home state.
John Moreland, born in Texas, raised in Tulsa, would not write about Oklahoma again in any serious way until 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat, a record I’ve spent a ton of time listening to and even more time contemplating the mythical state presented in its ten songs. There were the “Tulsa county stars” in the album’s opening lullaby, the tortured desolation of Cherokee, OK halfway through, the triumphant Tulsa homecoming on the closing rocker. And, in my favorite song, there was that same line once again, in a song called “Cleveland County Blues.” “My baby is a tornado,” Moreland sings in its perfect opening line, “in the endless, Oklahoma sky.”
What does it mean to romanticize a physical place based on its music? From New Orleans to Austin to Nashville, I’ve never been able to prevent myself from falling hard for cities I’d seldom, if ever, visited, neighborhoods I’d merely read about, communities I had no place in, because of the music–past and present–of and from a given place.
Sometimes, these infatuations have led to amazing trips and meaningful relationships; other times, they’ve resulted in an embarrassing, obvious sense of disappointment, like the time I sat around in an East Nashville dive bar waiting for all my favorite singer-songwriters to walk through the door with guitars and erupt in a spontaneous night of music (spoiler: they never came).
A couple years ago, it started to feel like just about every other new artist I was getting really excited about hailed from Oklahoma. “It’s such a fertile place to try to be a songwriter,” John Fullbright, one of the state’s finest young musicians, told me for a story I was writing in 2014. “There’s no music industry out here, so why wouldn’t you let someone jump on stage with a guitar if they wanted to?”
I had been guilty of naive romanticization of faraway towns and cities before, but my newfound infatuation with an entire state, one that comprised 70,000 square miles and nearly four million people, had reached a new level of absurdity. Yet, I couldn’t help but hear the open grey skies in the songs of John Moreland, the dusty isolation in the quivering voice of Samantha Crain, the open-windowed breeze pouring through in John Fullbright’s perfect piano playing. I was hooked.
My fairy-tale conception of Oklahoma began to get in the way of the actual music, the very reason I had become so smitten in the first place. I willfully ignored the fact that many of the songs from my newly beloved state told tales of unhappy restlessness with one’s surroundings. Many, in fact, were desperate pleas to leave. Asked earlier this year why so much of his most recent album sounded so starkly despondent, Okie singer-songwriter Park Millsap responded, “A lot of it was living where I was living at the time…it was Oklahoma in the winter, and Oklahoma in the winter is one of the ugliest places.” I cared not: If a state was capable of producing so many amazing artists, I thought, it must be amazing. At the least, as Millsap songs were telling me, such ugliness was its own sort of beauty.
The moment I realized my romanticizing had truly gotten out of hand came during a John Moreland concert in New York last fall. He opened with “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” and as he sang the line, “Darling, let the charmers leave the room/Let ‘em have that Nashville moon,” I found myself nodding in affirmation. That’s right, I thought to myself, pitting one imaginary music-place against another. Let them have their Nashville moon! My geographic allegiances were settled: I was team Oklahoma.
I’ve only been to Oklahoma once. It was the Spring of 2009, and I was on my sophomore year spring break in college, back when the only Okie musician I could name was Woody Guthrie. After a 13 hour drive from St. Paul, I had suddenly found myself on a wildlife refuge in Southwest Oklahoma, where I spent a few days hiking, camping, and quietly recovering from my first real romantic rejection that had happened two days earlier with a group of near-strangers from my college’s outing club.
It was, I remember thinking at the time, the single most beautiful place I had ever been. There were oddly-shaped rock formations, enormous, bulging boulders, and, almost unbelievably, wild buffalo hanging around just about everywhere. Mostly, there was endless Oklahoma sky.
Funny thing is, I only recently connected the dots and remembered that I had actually been to Oklahoma, had ever-so-briefly glimpsed some of the endless skies so many of my favorite artists are singing about these days. The mental maps that music creates, maps of hope and possibility, of heroic lives lived and hardships endured, have always existed on some other plane of reality, separated largely from actual experience in their own realm of fantasy.
But whether it’s Springsteen’s Jersey shore, or Angaleena Presley’s Kentucky coal country, or Drive-By Truckers’ North Alabama, or John Moreland’s Northeastern Oklahoma, these mental roadmaps help me make sense of our country’s cities and states and the stories, real or mythological, they like to tell about themselves. As for Oklahoma, I’ll keep listening and learning, trying my hardest not to get too carried away.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.