May 2, 2012

John Fullbright – A Troubadour on the Rise

John Fullbright, Woodyfest 2011, Okemah, OK

“I have no doubt that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.” – Jimmy Webb

“[At SXSW], this young Oklahoman’s name was on everybody’s lips.” – American Songwriter


In a graveyard on the north side of the small rural town of Okemah, Oklahoma, where 23-year-old John Fullbright was raised (and still resides) are two tombstones marking the graves of two very different men.  One is on the east side of the cemetery; the other on the west. In between the two is where Fullbright says he’d like his own tombstone to be placed. Why? Because the two tombstones bear the names of the two most influential people in his life – his grandpa  and Woody Guthrie.  It is the subject of a song Fullbright wrote called “Tombstone,” one of the standout tracks on a live recording of a concert he performed three years ago at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City bearing the simple title of Live at the Blue Door.  It was not promoted nationally, but it was an attention-getter for those who heard it (it set sales records at the 2009 Woodyfest, the annual folk festival honoring Woody Guthrie), and Fullbright has continued to promote the album through a heavy touring schedule with his shows steadily gaining him a growing fan base one gig at a time.

The recording project was simple – a one-man show with just a voice, a guitar, and a harmonica, but lest you are thinking (like I was) that this by definition spells ‘boring’,  think again.   I was surprised at the depth and fullness that is generated by this one-man band and captured in the live recording.  Thirteen of its 17 tracks are Fullbright’s own compositions, and he writes surprisingly insightful and mature lyrics that belie his youth (he was a mere 21  years old then, but had already become a favorite at outdoor music festivals before he was out of high school).  He is able to create quite a sound all by himself, slapping the guitar strings with such fervor that the lack of a drumset is not even noticed, and gives a unique vocal delivery that makes the listener stand up and take notice.

Live at the Blue Door was recorded and distributed in 2009 by a local label, Blue Door Records, with the aid of The Blue Door’s owner, Greg Johnson, who was so taken by Fullbright’s talent that he became his manager to help get his career off the ground.  Johnson, a native of Oklahoma City, had been involved with the singer/songwriter community in Austin as a music journalist, publicist and host of Woody Guthrie concerts for nearly a decade before returning to OKC and acquiring The Blue Door and convincing many of his Austin friends to perform there.  Since then, The Blue Door has become Oklahoma’s premiere venue for performing songwriters and has hosted such legends as Jimmy Webb, Joe Ely, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and many others.

John Fullbright seems destined to become a legend himself, and his time may have finally arrived with the release on May 8, 2012, of his debut studio recording, From the Ground Up.  The new CD was funded entirely by fans through Kickstarter, and is being released on Fullbright’s own independent label, Blue Dirt Records, with the distributor, Thirty Tigers, acting as label staff.   This time around, though, Fullbright is backed by a full band, including Terry “Buffalo” Ware, Andrew Hardin, and Ryan Engleman (guitar), Fats Kaplin (violin and steel guitar) Jess Klein (backup vocals), John Knudson (organ), Wes Sharon (bass), and Giovanni Carnuccio III (drums).  Fullbright plays the piano and harmonica parts, almost all of the organ parts and much of the guitar work, and co-produced the album with Wes Sharon, the  owner of 115 Studios in Norman, Oklahoma.

The CD release show is scheduled for May 3-4, 2012 at The Blue Door in Oklahoma City, and Fullbright will launch his first national tour with shows in Los Angeles on May 10 and in New York City on May 17.  The full tour schedule can be seen here.

Here’s the first music video of the track “Satan & St. Paul,” from the new CD:

Also, the new album’s first single, “Gawd Above,” was recently released through Paste Magazine, which you can stream here.  I have wondered just what Fullbright could do with a full band behind him ever since I heard what he is capable of solo on Live at the Blue Door, and if these previews are any indication of how good the rest of the album sounds, it should catch fire like crazy and burn the whole house down.

Four of the tracks on the new album are fleshed out fuller versions of songs that were recorded solo on  Live at the Blue Door – “Moving On,” “Jericho,” “All the Time in the World,” and “Satan & St. Paul”  – all outstanding songs, but I won’t be throwing out Live at the Blue Door.  There’s too many killer songs on it that you won’t hear anywhere else, like “Tombstone,” “Blameless,” “Unlocked Doors,” “New Arrival,” and  more, including a stunning cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in which Fullbright puts all questions to rest as to whether we really need yet one more version of this song.

Three years ago a seed was planted at The Blue Door in Oklahoma City with the recording of that simple solo performance.  Fullbright performed it the night before he left for Memphis to attend the Folk Alliance, his very first big music industry convention.  He took some burned CDs of the concert with him to Memphis, hoping to stir up some interest.  Since then, the seed has had time to sprout “from the ground up” and now, with the release of the new studio album, it is beginning to branch out far and wide.  It’s about time.

Filed under Blues, Folk