Who Is…John Fullbright

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 06.12.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Literate but hardscrabble, southwestern singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist

From: Okemah, Oklahoma

Personae: John Fullbright

At the ripe old age of 23, John Fullbright sounds to many like the most promising new singer-songwriter on the block. He hails from Woody Guthrie’s hometown, and because Live at the Blue Door, his barely-distributed 2009 debut, was cut with just his guitar (or piano) and rack harp, he was initially perceived as a folkie in that tradition. But he’d done that album quickly and with little planning only so he’d have a sample of his work to take to that year’s Folk Alliance Conference. On his new From the Ground Up, which is being promoted as more or less his “real” debut, the majority of tracks feature a full band (though his live shows remain mostly solo). However you hear him, Fullbright’s grandchild-of-the-Dust-Bowl sensibility, with just enough of a chip on its shoulder to keep things tense as well as compelling, continues to shine through. He began as a student of country-based writers, from Townes Van Zandt on down, but his most recent work suggests he has since absorbed Randy Newman and others across the pop spectrum. His music has also come to assimilate folk, country, blues and pop without any of those antecedents being easy to pin down; combine that with his rich Okie twang, which delivers his lyrics in a voice that ranges from tremulous softness to alley-cat yowl, and you have that rarest of species, an artist who sounds like nobody except himself. He’s already built a strong reputation in his region of the country, and if it doesn’t grow now that he’s touring more widely, something is definitely wrong.

On beginning to write songs:

I’d write kinda secretly when I was 14, 15. Musically I had a very lonely childhood; nobody in my family was involved with music at all; even in high school I was starving for someone to play with. I lived outside town, so I was the first picked up in the morning and the last dropped off the school bus every afternoon. I spent a lot of time sitting by myself, staring out the window, thinking. Then when I was 17, I got a mix CD of Steve Earle…Townes Van Zandt…and it got me thinking very seriously about writing. But I came at it backwards — those guys have great vocals and ideas but struggle with the instrumental part of it. I was the opposite; I could play pretty well by then, but couldn’t sing and didn’t think I had many ideas. Townes was the man. All writing fell short of what he did. I suffered by myself trying to write the perfect song right off the bat. I was quite the snob, and every songwriter was inferior to Townes, including me.

On writing now:

Lyrics are mostly me talking to me, but I want to write more attainable songs and not be vague. So much of it is hiding behind vagueness in order to be hip. I know what I’m talking about, but I want to write lyrics that make sense to everyone. I’ve told the truth the whole time, but the truth changes and I have to change with it. At 16, you’ve got everything figured out; it’s easy to write about being persecuted. But as you gain more life experience and see more complexities…

On adding a band:

I’d been avoiding it for a while, not because I didn’t want to, but because it just didn’t make sense at the time, especially financially. I’m not shy about what I want to hear from them; I’m very picky about what I want to hear. All I really care about is the energy: If you’re gonna do something, do the hell out of it.

On reading:

Jimmy Webb told me you have to read a lot to become a great writer, and I try to be a big reader. It’s hard nowadays, when you’ve got a laptop, a TV and a phone that plays movies. But I’ll still turn those off and just read, mostly poems and short stories. I like Bukowski about as much as anyone out there…Flannery O’Connor…Steinbeck.

On Woody Guthrie:

I knew his name early on ’cause it’s on the water tower. But nobody talked about him much in Okemah, so I never knew much about him; we never went to the WoodyFest they have every year, because the politics was so radically different. I’m still kinda trying to figure out my own politics. It’s easy to say he’s an entertainer but that’s far from all he was. I’m coming to learn he wasn’t just a communist, which is how they think of him in town; he had a real love for humanity. Really, I found out about him mostly through Dylan; that was the first thump on my head, my light bulb moment.