“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.”