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Ace Moreland: A Remembrance

Ace Moreland: A Remembrance

by Paul Doell
February 2003

Ace Moreland’s most recent album (Give It To Get It, released on the King Snake-Icehouse label in 2000) includes a 1998 photo of the lean, lanky guitarist with his friend Jesse Stone, who wrote the mischievous "Mama Don’t Allow No Guitar Playin’ ‘Round Here" for Gene Autry and the raucous "Shake Rattle & Roll" for Big Joe Turner. Ace didn’t look good in this shot: his thin frame barely supported a baggy tank top, his eyes were red at the rims, and the lines of sleepless nights and poor habits creased his face. The sad sense was that Ace Moreland was not to grow old.

On February 9, 2003, Ace Moreland died of lung cancer at his home in Miami, Oklahoma. He was 51. I didn’t know Ace personally, but I sure knew his music and his work at King Snake Records, where Moreland was in full-time demand as a songwriter, session player, producer, engineer and troubleshooter.

At King Snake, Ace had completed five of his own excellent albums and worked on projects by the late Alex Taylor, Bill "Sauce Boss" Wharton and the Ingredients, Raful Neal, turban-topped Texas lap-steel bluesman Sonny Rhodes, Dru Lombar’s Dr. Hector and the Groove Injectors and Gregg Allman inspiration Floyd Miles (that’s Ace on the skillet-hot slide behind Allman and Miles on "Not Like I’ve Been Hurt By You").

I was also fortunate enough to have caught Ace Moreland in concert when he and the King Snake All-Stars (Warren King on guitar, King Snake owner Bob Greenlee on bass and former Groove Injector Denny Best on drums) held weekend court at a South Florida blues club in December 2000. It was during the Friday night show that I had a Moreland moment still fresh in this middle-aged memory.

As the band revved the grim rhythm of Son House’s "Death Letter Blues," Ace struck up the southpaw slide, carving through the crowd and nicking nerves as he tilted toward the microphone. "I got a letter this mornin’," he moaned in that familiar Ozark Mountain devil’s drawl. "How do you reckon it read?" The voice was raw and sweaty and exhausted, and Ace’s face was coiled in anguish. "I got a letter this mornin’" he repeated, this time with even greater urgency. "How do you reckon it read?" Silence swept the room as Moreland let loose with some more slide, sinister and strong, before answering the question. "It said ‘hurry hurry—that gal you love is dead.’" I watched and listened from across the room, rapt as everyone else was by the sheer power unleashed by this gifted man. I thought: "If this is not honest, gut-gripping blues, I don’t know what is."

Ace Moreland wasn’t the first bluesman to interpret the tune, and he won’t be the last. But I haven’t heard any other artist invest the song with as much emotion and intensity as Moreland summoned up that night. This was one of those enduring moments when everyone on hand (including those people who hadn’t set out to see Ace, and who had just wandered into the club by chance) understood the therapeutic value of the blues. We were so caught up in Moreland’s overwhelming despair that our own problems seemed petty, and we were able to put them aside for a time.

The blues: Ace Moreland was able to articulate the dichotomy of the genre (live it up, then try to live it down) in often bright and funny ways. He enjoyed a good time, but he understood the consequences of excess. "Ain’t Nothing But A Party" and "Let’s Have Some Fun" were Moreland philosophies as well as song titles, but Ace threw everyone a curve with the dark, ironic "I’m A Damn Good Time." The title suggested one thing, but the tone said another: The song was wrapped in the saddest slide guitar you’ve ever heard. The lyrics were bleak, and the delivery was morose: "I’m your mornin’ of blues," Ace sang. "I’m the holes in your shoes. I’m the money that you spent last night, and I’m your hangover too. I’m too far gone, but I’m doin’ just fine. I’m a cool glass of wine. I’m a damn good time."

Great stuff, a stark reminder that pleasure is never without a price. Less subtle, but no less compelling, were these instructive Moreland classics: "Devils In The Head," "Devil In My Soul," "Too Far Gone," "Head In The Bottle," "Gates Of Hell," "Down To The Bottom," and "The Blues Gonna Get Me."

Ace once used another artists’s song (Lucky Peterson’s "Don’t Let The Devil Ride") to reinforce a point about weakness and temptation. "Don’t let him ride," Moreland warned. "No no no no don’t let him ride. ‘Cause if you let the devil ride, he’s gonna wanna drive." I’m sure Ace spent more than a few evenings in the passenger seat in his short life.

Moreland appeared to be at his most content on Give It To Get It, a collection of earthy Delta blues and meaty amplified funk that also offered two significant departures, two hints of new dimension and new direction from this versatile artist: "Homestead Mill," a celebration of irrepressible human spirit, and "Indian Giver," a haunting meditation on the indignities inflicted upon Native Americans. Moreland himself was of Cherokee heritage.

In his last weeks, Moreland was working on a new album. He was also helping his friend Bill Wharton launch a hunger relief project called Planet Gumbo (www.planetgumbo.org) . It is a measure of Moreland’s own humanity that rapidly failing health did not get in the way of a good cause.

Like all of us, Ace Moreland had his demons. But, unlike most of us, he was able to turn their torments into songs, which then provided catharsis for the rest of us. In that sense, Ace kept faith with the bluesman’s noble mission, and we will always be grateful for that.

Read our archived interview with Ace Here

Photos by Paul Doell

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