A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Homegrown to full grown
Acclaimed Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Fullbright, who still makes his home in Bearden, is playing an Oklahoma release show Saturday at UCO for “Songs,” his new album that is the follow-up to his 2012 Grammy-nominated studio debut “From the Ground Up.”
John Fullbright used to scoff at the commonplace practice of musicians decorating their instrument cases with stickers collected on their travels.
Once he started adorning his own guitar case with colorful tokens from around the country and even the world, the Oklahoma singer-songwriter discovered it was actually fun and quite handy.
“I have a terrible memory. I can look at every sticker and kind of go ‘oh, yeah,’” he said, immediately delving into the stories behind a few of the slogans and logos carefully plastered on the hard black case.
If Fullbright, 26, needs visual aids to recall exact details of the past couple years, who could blame him? The Bearden denizen’s youthful coping mechanism for boredom burgeoned into a globe-trotting musical career with the release of his 2012 studio debut “From the Ground Up,” which took him to the Grammys, to Bonnaroo and beyond.
His sophomore album, simply titled “Songs,” isn’t due out until May 27, but it’s already earning praise from the Wall Street Journal, American Songwriter and Country Weekly.
“I didn’t chase stardom when I got into this. I’m not in it to be renowned or anything but being a pretty good songwriter and to reach people that way. That’s why I never put on a sequined suit and chased that dream down – ‘cause it doesn’t mean anything,” Fullbright said last week during a sit-down interview at The Oklahoman offices.
“But if I can write some songs that people will latch on to that mean something next year or the year after that, the year after that, something that you can come back to and go ‘OK, there’s still something, there’s still meat on this bone, something I can take from this.’ That’s what I want. I want to be 80 years old and somebody to still know a John Fullbright song, not to say, ‘Hey, remember when you played that rockin’ show in Edmond’ – not to say it won’t be.”
After launching his career at the respected but tiny the Blue Door, Fullbright is playing his Oklahoma City album release show Saturday at a new spot for him, the University of Central Oklahoma’s Mitchell Hall. After he sold out three straight nights at the Blue Door a year ago, it became clear that his fame – sought after or not – had outgrown the listening room. Outdoor concerts last year at Norman and last weekend in Tulsa drew hundreds of home-state fans, and the UCO show is expected to sell out.
“There are a lot of people that want to hear these songs, and there are a lot of people that are coming to these shows in Oklahoma and exceeded all expectations. It’s just the icing on the cake that you actually have listeners once you’ve spent the time and the blood, sweat and tears to create something that you’re proud of, to have people actually enjoy it with you, that’s the ultimate high,” he said.
Back in Bearden
Alongside a bold “I Heart UK” graphic – “I wanted a really like touristy stupid sticker,” he admitted with a grin – Fullbright’s guitar case is festooned with stickers that affirm his fealty to the Sooner State, an OKPOP patch, a This Land Press logo, a sticker for 115 Recording, the Norman studio where he recorded both “Songs” and “From the Ground Up.”
After spending much of the last year or so on “a long endless road” that crisscrossed the country and hopped over into Europe, Fullbright has spent the past few weeks home in Bearden, where he grew up and still lives next door to his parents. He’s hung out with his nieces and nephews, played dominoes with his neighbor and former bandmate Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours and even performed an impromptu show in nearby Okemah, where his sister-in-law is trying to open a coffee shop.
“It’s been so good. I really needed it,” he said. “My whole family’s here. I don’t necessarily need to leave right now. I leave every week. I go all over the country, I go overseas, I get my belly full of being somewhere else, and in the few instances that I get to myself, I kind of want to be back home in a more grounded situation where I can breathe and maybe even write a song if I’m very lucky.”
Of course, if he’s honest, he got started writing the songs that have made him a rising folk star because he was bored in Bearden.
“I grew up on a farm. There was absolutely nothing to do. There were no sidewalks to skateboard down; there wasn’t a mall to go hang out in. There was just trees and a piano and (you could) play football, but I didn’t want to do that. And so these songs came from just utter boredom. I’m not bored anymore. I’m busy. I’m going a hundred miles an hour in a different city every night. Things don’t just pop out anymore because now I’m focused on keeping the car between the lines and where do we have to be tonight. And it’s just a nonstop planning, and when you’re doing that, you’re using up 90 percent of your brain. And you can’t devote it to sitting and trying to be creative,” he said.
“It’s been the hardest hurdle so far to get over, which is not being at home to write a song, like the idea of being in a hotel in the middle of calamity and chaos and saying ‘I want to write.’ … I think I’m getting a little better. I mean, I still have to be bored, but there’s a science involved in making yourself go to that place. And I’m trying to figure that part out.”
A bright yellow banner along the neck of his guitar case happens to be Fullbright’s favorite sticker, for the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, Calif.
“That was a good one,” he said, recalling his visit to the quirky tourist attraction. “It’s just a wacky place. Balls rolls uphill and crazy things happen there.”
Of course, it wasn’t the only California adventure Fullbright experienced last year, when “From the Ground Up” was nominated for Best Americana Album at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. He said he got the call at home late one February night, and since he couldn’t think of a place to celebrate in Bearden, he just went back to what he was doing.
“I was in the middle of scrubbing my tub when I got the news, so I just kind of went back to scrubbing the tub and celebrated later,” he said. “My first question was ‘Do I have to go?’ Because L.A. scares me anyway, and then I had to find the right clothes to wear on a red carpet, like, that’s not me.”
He did go West for Music’s Biggest Night, which he found was “quite a circus.” Although Bonnie Raitt’s “Slipstream” actually won the Best Americana Album category, the Oklahoman earned his own bit of Grammy glory when he and seasoned local guitarist Terry “Buffalo” Ware performed an electrifying rendition of Fullbright’s “Gawd Above” during the Grammys Pre-Telecast Ceremony.
Ware is among the many veteran Oklahoma musicians Fullbright has worked with or modeled his career on; others include the Red Dirt Rangers, Larry Spears, Jimmy Webb and the late Bob Childers. Oklahoma singer-songwriter Tom Skinner and Austin, Texas-based Blue Door regular Michael Fracasso will open Fullbright’s UCO show with a songsmith showcase.
“There’s some sort of insane just like lie that the music business tells itself, that the younger the artist, the better they are,” he said. “I don’t want a little hot-shot guitar player who has been doing this for two years. … I want the old guy that knows how to do it; he’s played all the wrong notes and he doesn’t play ‘em anymore.”
He added, “Before I even decided that this was my goal or my path, I just remember watching those guys and thinking they have their priorities in line and it has nothing to do with a light show or pyrotechnics on stage. It has to do with where their heart is and when they put pen to paper and how you treat people in what you say and how you say it.”
Crafting the ‘Songs’
“Less Honkin! More Tonkin!” urges one of the biggest stickers on Fullbright’s case, and the small-town scribe does differentiate between his live shows, where he and his band amp up the energy and play everything from New Orleans funk to boogie woogie, and his albums, which he views as his legacy.
“I have things that I want to say in a very specific way that have nothing to do with that live show – they have everything do with me,” he said. “It’s funny. I’m shy. I mean, I’m a very shy person. And what do I do every night? I get on stage in front of people and tell secrets about my life. You would think that that would be the most terrifying thing – except it’s a one-sided conversation. It’s me talking, and then the curtains close and then I walk off stage. It’s not a discussion, so it actually makes it kind of easy to do in that sense.”
While all 12 tracks on “Songs” are based on personal experience, Fullbright said he sees a songwriter’s job involves more than just pouring out his troubles and expecting the listener to sit in on the confessional.
“What are your bringing to the table? Are your bringing your diary? Are you just bringing yourself and your problems? Or are you saying, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve been in a long-distance relationship that did not work … and it hurt.’ Some people will raise their hands, and all right, you tell your story in that way,” he said.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I kind of had to get off my chest on that first record that was hard to talk about, and I got it out. And there’s a lot of stuff on this record that was kind of hard to experience and hard to do. But I feel like I’m better at it, though, this time. I’m not as guarded in my approach on this record, and I think it’s better. I think the songs are better. Maybe they’re not. But I feel like I’m a stronger writer than I was on the first one.”
When he took his latest batch of songs into 115 Recording, he and producer/engineer Wes Sharon realized about halfway through making “Songs” that it needed to be a stripped-down album to showcase, well, the songs.
“This is an introspective record; like, there’s a lot of things about this record that are more mature and more of a close-up image of me as an artist and as a person,” he said. “It’s more complex in what it has to say, but it’s more simplified in its approach. To me, that’s really the goal in this craft, is to say more with less.”
Someone ought to put that on a guitar-case sticker.
John Fullbright ‘Songs’ album release show
•Featuring: Tom Skinner and Michael Fracasso.
•When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
•Where: University of Central Oklahoma’s Mitchell Hall Theater, 100 N University Drive, Edmond.
•Information and tickets: www.ticketstorm.com or (866) 966-1777.