"What's so bad about happy?" John Fullbright sings on the opening track of his new album, 'Songs.' It's a play on the writer's curse, the notion that new material can only come through heartbreak or depression, that great art is only born from suffering.
"A normal person, if they find themselves in a position of turmoil or grief, they'll say, 'I need to get out of this as fast as I can,'" says Fullbright. "A writer will say, 'How long can I stay in this until I get something good?' And that's a bullshit way to look at life," he laughs.
That plainspoken approach is part of what's fueled the young Oklahoman's remarkable rise. It was just two years ago that Fullbright released his debut studio album, 'From The Ground Up,' to a swarm of critical acclaim. The LA Times called the record "preternaturally self-assured," while NPR hailed him as one of the 10 Artists You Should Have Known in 2012, saying "it's not every day a new artist…earns comparisons to great songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman, but Fullbright's music makes sense in such lofty company." The Wall Street Journal crowned him as giving one of the year's 10 best live performances, and the album also earned him the ASCAP Foundation's Harold Adamson Lyric Award. If there was any doubt that his debut announced the arrival of a songwriting force to be reckoned with, it was put to rest when 'From The Ground Up' was nominated for Best Americana Album at the GRAMMY Awards, which placed Fullbright alongside icons like Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, and Lucinda Williams.
"I never came into this with a whole lot of expectations," says Fullbright. "I just wanted to write really good songs, and with that outlook, everything else is a perk. The fact that we went to LA and played "Gawd Above" in front of a star-studded audience [at the GRAMMY pre-tel concert], never in my life would I have imagined that."
But for Fullbright, it hasn't been all the acclaim that means the most to him, but rather his entrance into a community of songwriters whose work he admires.
"When I started out, I was all by myself in a little town in Oklahoma where whatever you wanted, you just made it yourself," he explains. "I didn’t grow up around musicians or like-minded songwriters, but I grew up around records. One of the most fulfilling things about the last two years is that now I'm surrounded by like-minded people in a community of peers. You don't feel so alone anymore."
If there's a recurring motif that jumps out upon first listen to "Songs,' it's the act of writing, which is one Fullbright treats with the utmost respect. "When I discovered Townes Van Zandt, that's when I went, 'You know, this is something to be taken pretty damn seriously,'" says Fullbright. "'This is nothing to do with business, it has to do with art and identity.' You can write something that's going to outlast you, and immortality though song is a big draw."
But just as important to Fullbright as writing is careful editing. "I can write a first verse and a chorus fairly easily, and it's important just to document it at the time and come back to it later," he explains. "That's the labor, when you really get your tools out and figure out how to craft something that's worthwhile."
Fullbright inhabits his songs' narrators completely, his old-soul voice fleshing out complex characters and subtle narratives with a gifted sense of understatement.
"My songwriting is a lot more economical now," he explains. "I like to say as much as I can in 2 minutes 50 seconds, and that’s kind of a point of pride for me."
Musically, the album also makes a deliberate point of stripping Fullbright's songs down to their cores.
"I'm a better performer and writer and musician now, and I wanted a record that would reflect that," he says. "We tracked a lot of it live, just me and a bass player in a room with a few microphones. The basis is a live performance and everything else supports that. I think you just get as much energy and skill as you can into a take, and then start building from there. And what we found is that you don't have to add too much to that."
The songs also reflect how drastically Fullbright's life has changed since the release of 'From The Ground Up,' which launched him into a rigorous schedule of international touring. "Going Home" finds him appreciating the simple pleasure of heading back to Oklahoma, which he likens to The Odyssey. "When you're gone for so long, once you know you're headed in the right direction to your own bed and your own home, that's one of the greatest feelings you can have," he says. "I Didn't Know" is a song he premiered live at concert hosted by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, a story he tells still somewhat incredulously, while "When You're Here" is a somber piano love song, and "The One That Lives Too Far" is a raw account of the strain that distance can put on a romantic relationship.
To be sure, 'Songs' has its moments of darkness, tracks born from pain and heartbreak, but for a craftsman like Fullbright, there are few greater joys than carving emotion into music, taking a stab at that lofty goal of immortality through song. It makes him—and his fans—happy, and there's nothing bad about that. 2012–2013 has been a groundbreaking period for John Fullbright, and the Grammy nomination for From The Ground Up was just one of many highlights. Since its release in May 2012, Fullbright’s first studio album has garnered high praise from peers and pundits alike, making the young Oklahoman the most talked about young singer/songwriter in music today. In December, Jimmy Webb presented John with the prestigious ASCAP Harold Adamson Lyric Writing Award, calling John “one of the best writers I have heard in a long, long time.” Earlier in the year, John was invited to sing for the Chuck Berry Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Tribute. While the rest of the cast strapped on Fender guitars, John played “Downbound Train” on piano as Chuck sat twenty feet away.
Born in Bearden, Oklahoma, Fullbright went to school in nearby Okemah, also the hometown of Woody Guthrie. It was at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival that John first started to make a name for himself in the picking circles on the festival campgrounds. In 2009, John burst upon the southwest music scene with a stellar live album recorded at Oklahoma City’s renowned Blue Door, a venerable Oklahoma venue that Fullbright has used as his home away from home. Live At The Blue Door was recorded as a calling card, a way to introduce John at the 2009 Folk Alliance conference. It did that—and more. Without any promotion, the self-produced CD has sold 4,000 copies and continues strong sales today. In 2013, John will headline the Friday night show on the main stage at WoodyFest. Both Live at the Blue Door and From The Ground Up have set sales records for WoodyFest, making John the most popular artist in the history of the festival.
In From the Ground Up, Fullbright traverses an emotional and musical terrain that is extremely broad, showing equal acuity with tender ballads and songs that make you want to drive faster with the windows rolled down. Fullbright’s earliest songwriting heroes, Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury, infuse this record, but so do Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, and many of Fullbright’s songwriting compatriots from Oklahoma and Texas. Firmly rooted in a variety of musical styles, he draws on what has come before, but without imitation. Forget labels when you listen to John Fullbright. He is not folk, not Americana and not pop, but possibly the best fusion of them all.
Fullbright co-produced the album—the photo on the cover shows him on the front porch of the house where both he and his father grew up—with the owner of 115 Studios in Norman, Okla., Wes Sharon, who also played bass on the album. Fullbright played many of the instruments on the album: all of piano and harmonica, almost all of the organ parts and much of the guitar work. Musicians from the legendary to the infamous lent their talents: Terry “Buffalo” Ware and Andrew Hardin added guitar, while Fats Kaplin played violin and steel guitar. Other musicians on the album are Giovanni Carnuccio III (drums), John Knudson (organ), Jess Klein (background vocals) and Ryan Engleman (guitar).
John Fullbright is a young man who finds love, beauty and pain in the here and now, and skepticism and disdain for those who would take advantage of the dreams of those hoping for a better world. That he can articulate his worldview with an almost otherworldly precocity makes his debut studio album, From The Ground Up, worthy of attention. From the fertile ground of Oklahoma, another songwriting legend may be blooming.