John Fullbright, the definition of an Oklahoma musician
This Sunday night, music gets the spotlight, as the National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences hands out its awards at the Grammys. And an Oklahoma rookie will be competing alongside notables in one category. I sat down with one of the nominees from our state back when the news first came out…
The raw honesty of John Fullbright. He reaches deep in his music, inviting the listener along for the challenge. There’s an oh so small hint of Woody Guthrie influence in the 24 year old’s lyrics.
“Woody, I got into Woody, I read Bound for Glory and I was floored. Why didn’t anybody know about this guy, why weren’t we reading this book just for the sheer pride?”
John Fullbright grew up just outside Okemah, also the hometown of Woody, and with time to kill, the piano first became an outlet…
“I’ve always been on it, and it’s always been my voice when I didn’t have a voice.”
“So yeah instead of going out and doing stuff, you tend to stay in a little more. Creativity spawns from boredom and I spend a lot of time just sitting at a piano. Just sitting on a tractor.”
The songwriting came later. And then the guitar. Once he was ready to give it a go, Fullbright headed to Brick Street Café, one of the few restaurants in Okemah. Artifacts from an agricultural era past peer at diners from the walls…
“I just go take a microphone and play guitar and I’d play for 4-5 hours at a time. I’d set up at like 7 and just play until my voice went out. And that’s when I learned to scream…if 6 people were in there listening to me, that was a big deal.”
Sandwiched in there is WoodyFest, the once a year festival that turns Okemah into the home of American roots music. And before long, Fullbright was opening up at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City, a stop for many singer songwriters. Greg Johnson runs the music club – and just as a side note, he also hosts a show here on KOSU every Saturday night. Johnson trotted Fullbright out whenever he could. Then a live album. And then From the Ground Up.
‘To me that’s the best part about this whole thing. That record was made with nothing in mind, you know? It was just like music, living, breathing, sweating, crying these songs, until they were absolutely finished. And From the Ground Up, that’s why it’s called that.”
John’s debut studio album netted him a Grammy nomination, alongside names like Mumford and Sons, Bonnie Raitt, and the Avett Brothers.
“It was the hardest I ever worked on anything in my whole life. And now it’s getting a little bit of attention, and that’s pretty cool.”
It’s a simple sound coming from an uncomplicated guy. He still drives a Pontiac Montana to gigs, and right after, told me he likes to sneak in a couple hours of driving before finding a parking lot to set up in for the night. So it’s no wonder you hear a working man’s voice…singing lyrics like “Dream me a better world”.
He hits all the check marks of Americana: harmonica, yearning lyrics, the occasional guitar solo. But sprinkling piano, and a hushed singing voice in occasionally, that’s all John.
In case you were worried about Fullbright forgetting the places that shaped his life, well, just listen.
“So I’m home and somebody sends me the message that says you just got nominated, and I’m right in the middle of scrubbing my tub and I just went back to scrubbing my tub because that’s not supposed to happen. Not to guys like me.”