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Space Cowboy prepares for liftoff

John Calvin Abney releases sophomore album

John Calvin Abney

Jeremy Charles

Some things are lost to the moment, meant not to be clearly recalled.

“It’s a mystery,” said local folk singer John Calvin Abney on the origin of his nickname “Space Cowboy.”

“It could have something to do with my astronaut aspirations or my cosmic approach to life, but I don’t even think I will ever know.”

It is fortunate for the citizens of this particular terrestrial body that Abney is a songwriter, not an astronaut.

Abney has spent the last near-decade of his young life recording and releasing original material as well as being a multi-instrumentalist gun-for-hire. He has shared the stage with and provided instrumentation and harmonies for Samantha Crain, John Moreland, Chris Porter, Camille Harp, Kierston White and others. On September 23, Abney will break out and blaze his own trail across the atmosphere with Far Cries and Close Calls, his ethereal folk journey album being released by Horton Records.

Far Cries is his second full length and was conceived, he said, while on the western slope of Colorado, which is to say he had an outline and a few songs but no real plan going into the studio. 

Through accident, experiment, and the right band, Abney has created a unique work—equal parts dream pop and rock and roll, with layers of lo-fi folk drenched in atmospheric reverb. 

Abney recorded live to tape at Little Rock’s “Temple of Tone,” Fellowship Hall Sound. The studio has made Little Rock a home away from home for many Tulsa artists. He brought in Oklahoma’s current go to rhythm section, Paddy Ryan and Aaron Boehler for drums and bass, Megan Palmer on fiddle and harmonies and Cody Clinton on electric guitar.

“There’s a strange phenomenon, where you begin immediately hearing what should and shouldn’t be, visions but experienced with the ears,” said Abney. Based on those auditory visions, he made the decision to record live in hopes of using the songs’ first takes.

“I learned from working with John Moreland on ‘Better Luck’ that single takes can bring out something raw and real and relatable in a song. I was lucky to have a band as intuitive and crazy as I was.”

Lyrically, the songs center on the idea of something bigger than ourselves, something larger than life, love or loss. One of Abney’s strongest attributes is his ability to make the mundane seem magical with fanciful, poetic, folkloric writing.

The record begins with the enchanting track “Beauty Seldom Seen,” with an opening line about a “long string of failures and bad news bearers and broken testimonies at bars” setting a dark tone to a creeping melody. Songs are carried throughout the album with steady transitions, a rotating through uptempos, pseudo-60s sounds of summer organ, haunting harmonies, quiet acoustics, airy and floating choruses, and a particular song (“I’ll Be Here Mairead” ) that is a barrage of greasy rock and roll with a lead guitar tone that can only be described as gnarly, delivered by Cody Clinton. It drives home the point that it is not all soft spoken balladry. Sometimes you have to get some dirt under your nails. 

The album holds strong through its final song, “Opportunity,” which concludes with an arresting piano and violin composition.

On the cover of the album is a rendering of Abney’s trusted and much traveled jean jacket, painted by Pearl Jr. Moreland.

“I was touring through Athens, Georgia with Daniel Markham and Pearl said ‘I need a picture of your jacket, the space fighter denim jacket,’” said Abney. “So I went outside, threw my jacket on the parking lot of Weaver D’s [an iconic Georgia soul food restaurant] and took a photo. Through the space-time-magic-wizardry of satellite communications, Pearl got that photo seconds later and began on what became the art.”

The finished package—music, art, and poetry—is a sophomore effort full of heart and just enough grit to balance it out.

For more from Bobby, read his article on Jason Isbell.