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.
“I wasn't writing anything of my own then, but I just had a big notebook. I'd play everybody else's songs. Just play until my voice gave out. That's maybe where the, I don't know, old, weathered voice comes from. 'Cause I'd set up about 6 in the evening and just play until sometimes 10 or 11 and just, you know, till I just couldn't sing anymore and then I'd throw it all in the car and go home.”
Eventually Fullbright did begin to write his own material — honky tonk songs, road songs. As time passed, he found himself in Turnpike Troubadors, a Red Dirt band led by his neighbor Evan Felker. Then he left to pursue his own musical instincts and attend Southeastern State University in Durant.
But that didn't last long either.
“Right about the time I decided I didn't wanna do college anymore, Mike McClure called me and asked me to play keys for him, so I played keys with Mike for about nine months, maybe. That was my first hotel to hotel road experience.”
It was near the end of his stint with McClure in April 2008 that the group played at a wake held at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City for Bob Childers, the “father” of Oklahoma's Red Dirt music scene. And that was when Fullbright met the venue's owner, Greg Johnson, who was so taken with Fullbright's music that he recorded one of the Okemah singer's Blue Door performances for a live album. Johnson has since become Fullbright's manager.
In the liner notes for “From the Ground Up,” Johnson writes that Fullbright “devoured” the CDs and vinyl albums in Johnson's library, learning about such songwriters as Jimmy Webb — who plays the venue once a year — Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Harry Nilsson and others.
“Already a fan of Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and James McMurtry, John's newer influences just opened the door a little more,” Johnson says in the notes.
Fullbright coproduced the studio album with Wes Sharon at the latter's 115 Studios in Norman. Fullbright played many of the instruments on the album, including piano, harmonica and much of the organ and guitar work. Supporting him were Sharon on bass, Terry “Buffalo” Ware and Andrew Hardin on guitars, Fats Kaplin on violin and steel guitar, Giovanni Carnuccio III on drums, John Knudson on organ, Jess Kelin on backing vocals and Ryan Engleman on guitar.
The album opener, “Gawd Above,” cowritten by Fullbright and Dustin Welch, is a raucously irreverent tune which sets the tone for much of what is to follow, lyrically portraying a jealous and manipulative deity over a red-hot bed of blues-rocking guitar, warbling organ and wailing harp.
Fullbright laughingly calls it his “Sympathy for the Creator.”
“Well, it's kind of God with a gold tooth, you know?” he said. “It's a hard song to try to intro, 'cause I'm not sure how to do it with sounding too — I don't know — bold?”
In Fullbright's case, bold is good. Take another album standout, the heated, twangy, mid-tempo “Satan and St. Paul,” the one he calls his “angry song.”
“But it's not really,” he said. “... I'd say it's just (about) getting the wool pulled over your eyes, and then figurin' out you got the wool pulled over your eyes. It's ambiguous as hell, and I remember writing it, kind of thinking, ‘What would Tom Waits do?' But, you know, more of those damn biblical references in there. ... A lot of those lyrics are just about figurin' it out, tryin' to straighten it out a little bit. Findin' your own way and your own voice.”