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There’s a solid argument to be made that the entirety of modern American folk music can be traced back to our own legendary Woody Guthrie, and there has seemingly never been any shortage of Oklahoman acts to pick up the torch that he lit. 

But when it comes to the question of who is carrying that legacy into the modern era and the younger generations of Oklahomans, there are few better answers than John Calvin Abney, who is bringing his own brand of electrified folk-rock to The Criterion this Sunday in support of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

“I have been lucky to support a handful of inspiring touring acts in Oklahoma singing my own material,” Abney told me, “but I believe this will be the largest.”

This step into a bigger spotlight comes well-earned after a number of recent years touring the world as the trusted sideman of Tulsa’s breakout star John Moreland.

“Playing with Moreland, we’ve supported Isbell many times and many places. His whole team is top of the line in class and style,” he said of Isbell’s crew and the band of talent that makes up the 400 Unit.

Inexhaustible force

Raised in Tulsa before moving to Norman for college, Abney rapidly developed a reputation as an inexhaustible force around the town’s lively music scene. A near-constant slate of coffee shop gigs placed him firmly on practically every player’s radar, as did the tiny house that he kept right off Campus Corner that quickly became a revolving-door hub for late-night after-parties and jam sessions.

“He’s probably the hardest working musician I know,” said Kyle Reid, one of the closest musical confidants that Abney gained from that period, and a major player in the OK scene now himself. “He’s constantly absorbing new influences and life experiences and synthesizing them into music to share with the world, and he’s also quick to share his talents with other artists and can bring a spark of inspiration to the work of others.”

That spark is exactly what has made him the perfect stage companion for Moreland, with whom Abney has become a close collaborator following years touring together, opening for the immortal John Prine, and even performing together on The Late Show.

“Moreland and I are always in contact and working on something,” Abney said. “He and I have been learning new technologies and methods, expanding on what we’ve done, and it’s constantly inspiring.”

The stage

But Sunday night, Abney won’t be sitting behind anyone. The stage will be his and the band behind him will be playing his songs.

“I’ve toured solo for a decade when I haven’t been a sideman or supporting musician, so sharing a stage with the band feels affirming and powerful,” he explained of the experience of fronting his band of compiled Oklahoman and Texan players. “Each person’s musical proclivities and experiences paint the songs in ways I could never do by myself. This is a brand new line-up, but even if the nerves make for electricity, you trust the people you’re marching beside and things turn out better in surprising ways.”

John Calvin Abney
John Calvin Abney courtesy the artist

Any musician at Abney’s level will tell you that there is a significant difference between acting as a sideman or a supporting player and being the star and bandleader in the spotlight. Abney knows that the stakes are higher, but he intends to carry the same euphoric feeling onto the stage with him as always.

“At some point, the stage started becoming a liminal space lined with familiarity, no matter the room or theater, a place that exists somewhere outside of where I am, and it allows me to not fear or collapse from stage fright,” he said. “It ends up feeling like a living room if you let yourself go there, even in legendary rooms.” 

In classic fashion, he enjoys thinking about these feelings and experiences, and the moments and places that can accommodate them. Just like Guthrie and the countless other thoughtful troubadours before and since, Abney likes to try to pinpoint the humanistic element that can help him make sense of everything, even a packed house and a major theater stage.

“It may be a human aspect to find familiar sights and sensations in order to make sense of chaos or disarray, which shows are full of,” he said. “I read once that’s why we see shapes in clouds or in the finish on ceilings.”

Catch John Calvin Abney on stage at The Criterion this Sunday, October 10th in support of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Tickets and information can be found at criterionokc.com. Proof of vaccination will be required for entry.

Last Updated October 8, 2021, 6:12 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor