The cover photo on John Fullbright's debut studio album shows him standing on the porch of the Okemah house that both he and his father grew up in. It's a modest-looking white frame abode with a corrugated tin roof, but perhaps not as humble as the home where another Okemah-bred singer-songwriter was raised.
Hard to tell now, since Woody Guthrie's house was torn down decades ago, and only the stone foundation remains.
But they're not about to tear down Fullbright's house since he still lives in it, and unlike Guthrie, who ranged far from home to find fame as a folk hero, Fullbright's content to stick around — for now.
“It's cheap and it's pretty and I know it pretty well,” he said last week, from home. “It's an hour away from everything. The only problem is, it's an hour away from everything.”
But Fullbright may be going places sooner than he thinks, if another Oklahoma singer-songwriter is predicting the future accurately.
No less than Jimmy Webb has been quoted as saying, “I have no doubt that in a short time, John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.”
Pretty impressive testimonial. But then so is “From the Ground Up,” a collection of 12 provocative and addictive roots-rockers and ballads rich with a kind of accomplished musicianship, inspired tune-craft and a depth of lyrical emotion and wisdom that would seem beyond Fullbright's 24 years.
Even his weathered voice — sometimes reminiscent of Mad Dogs-era Leon Russell — sounds like that of a well-seasoned, world-weary veteran of smoke-filled bars and listening rooms.
He'll be celebrating his album's May 8 release Friday night with a live performance at his home venue, the Blue Door — which is smoke-free.
“I just sing what I know,” Fullbright said. “Sometimes I sing what I don't know and what I just assume. But mostly I just try to tell as much of the truth as I can. There are certain truths that seem to pop up everywhere, and those are the ones I try to find, and put 'em down in song.”
Oddly enough, Fullbright's earliest exposure to music did not come through the recordings of Guthrie or Leadbelly or more contemporary folk, blues or country artists, but rather the Top 40s music of the '60s and '70s that dominated his mother's extensive record collection.
Fortunately, Bob Dylan had had some mainstream radio success back in those days.
“I latched onto the records that were more singer-songwriter-based,” Fullbright said. “I remember listening to that Bob Dylan album, the ‘Greatest Hits' one with the blue silhouette of his head. I remember listening to that just nonstop, tryin' to figure out what the hell he was doin'.”
Fullbright began teaching himself how to play the piano at age 5. As a little kid, it was his way of finding his own voice in the household, although he was shy about playing in front of people. He would practice at his grandparents' house when they were busy elsewhere, until his mother finally suggested he take piano lessons.
“And I said sure, not knowin' I was signin' a 12-year contract I couldn't get out of. And me and my piano teacher fought like hell for the first six years or so. And then we ended up becoming really close friends. I still can't read music, but I don't blame her for that. I was just really stubborn.”
Fullbright remembers first picking up the guitar when he was about 13, “When I figured out you couldn't carry a piano around. Yeah, you know, I think girls had something to do with that.”
He was 16 when he first began playing covers of songs he liked in front of an audience at Okemah's Brick Street Cafe.
“I rented a — No, I didn't rent it, I actually stole it,” he confessed. “I stole a bass amp from the high school. You could plug a mike into it and I'd take it down to Brick Street on Fridays and just play for catfish and tips.