10 Questions for Musician John Fullbright | New music reviews, news & interviews
10 Questions for Musician John Fullbright
Oklahoma singer-songwriter wins friends and influences people with masterly debut album
"We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!" as they sang in the title song of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Singer-songwriter John Fullbright is no less enthusiastic about his home state, but he views it more from the direction of hobo balladeer Woody Guthrie than from the tradition of the Broadway musical.
The 24-year-old Fullbright happens to come from Guthrie's home town of Okemah, and while his songs don't inhabit the same folk-protest territory as Guthrie's, they're steeped in the music of the American south and west. Blues and country, gospel and hymns course through his songs, but if the musical roots are traditional - "old country and bluegrass is my bread and butter, my comfort food," he explains - his lyrics are lucid, powerful and distinctive.
As you'll hear if you pick up a copy of his new album From the Ground Up, each song inhabits its own particular universe and defines a specific idea or moment. Thunderous Biblical imagery contrasts with taut, detailed observation, and it may be Fullbright's past experience of playing drums that gives his songs a muscular rhythmic swagger. Songwriting doyen Jimmy Webb, a fellow-Oklahoman, has gone so far as to declare that "I have no doubt that in a short time, John Fullbright will be a household name in American music."
Fullbright himself is still getting to grips with the demands of being a professional troubadour, and admits that "being a performer or any of that stuff was the opposite of anything I wanted to do. I'm generally a shy person and I hated being in front of people, and I consider myself a writer a lot more than I do an entertainer. But I'm getting better at it and it's going really well right now, or else we wouldn't be talking."
Fullbright's performances at SXSW last year were deemed revelatory by several critics, and his album (released in the States last May) was showered with plaudits. The songwriters' and composers' organisation ASCAP presented him with its Harold Adamson Lyric Award in New York last December, and From the Ground Up was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Americana Album category (though Bonnie Raitt's Slipstream won on the night). Even in these days of a disintegrating music industry, there's still room for a real musician.
ADAM SWEETING: In your song "All the Time in the World", there's a vivid description of your home state - "Central Oklahoma is my land, it's my country / Eastern Oklahoma is a beautiful sight / Northern Oklahoma might as well be Kansas/ Never go to southern Oklahoma at night..."
JOHN FULLBRIGHT: Well it's south-eastern Oklahoma you don't go to, but "south-eastern" didn't fit the metre. It's the most beautiful part of the state, but yeah, they're a rough crew down there. Some of 'em, not all of 'em - some beautiful people down there too. But they call that part of the state Little Dixie, they've called it that for a very long time, for a reason. Oklahoma is a large sprawling place, though it's not as big as Texas and Texas loves to tell you that. It was a nice place to grow up for sure, where I lived in the more rural part of it. As a kid you kinda had to make your own entertainment, you didn't have sidewalks and skateboards and malls and movies. So whenever you were bored you had to figure out something to do. I discovered a piano, and that's what I did. Other kids played baseball, but I didn't like something that small flying at my head that fast so I just played the piano. The picture on the sleeve of my album is the house where I live and where I grew up until I was about nine. Grandpa built a house next door, we moved into it, my dad's grandparents lived in that house - the old house, that's what we call it. When I got out of school I needed somewhere to live, the young couple that were renting had just moved out and I just scooted right back in. I'm not gonna stay there forever, but I want to get a little more time in there and just soak it up, and I'll take it with me wherever I go.
You're from Okemah, Woody Guthrie's birthplace. Does the shadow of Woody loom over the town? (Guthrie pictured right)
No. They have a festival every year that I've gone to since I was 16, but there's not a museum, or an archive... there's a Woody Guthrie street and there's a little statue on Main Street and that seems to be about enough. But to other people it doesn't seem to be enough. They come looking for it and they go "that's it?" and I kinda go "what do you mean that's it? That's a lot, compared to what it used to be, when he was a goddamned communist!" But the old guard's just about gone. There's a lot of things I loved about that old guard, but one little thing, they sure didn't like Woody Guthrie. He was just the worst of the Left, y'know? It's interesting that Woody loved Okemah and he wrote about it fondly, but he never came back. I think the reason for that is his Okemah was his mom and his dad and sisters and having people that loved him, and not living in poverty on the streets like he eventually did, and he was kinda forced to ramble. I still live there for similar reasons. I live right next to my folks and I have a lot of history and a lot of memories, and it kinda keeps me grounded. We're similar in that respect I guess. Most of the songwriters I adore now all got something from Woody. There would be no Townes Van Zandt if it weren't for Woody, there would be no Jimmy Webb and no Bob Dylan.
We at The Arts Desk hope that you have been enjoying our coverage of the arts. If you like what you’re reading, do please consider making a donation. A contribution from you will help us to continue providing the high-quality arts writing that won us the Best Specialist Journalism Website award at the 2012 Online Media Awards. To make a one-off contribution click Donate or to set up a regular standing order click Subscribe.
With thanks and best wishes from all at The Arts Desk
more New music
Resurrected after 22 years, does this covers project still work?
The pioneer of continuous music astonishes while Bon Iver’s preferred artist Gregory Euclide paints live, on stage
Mouthy London trio's debut is loaded with enjoyable bawdiness and attitude
Easy listening and continental European intellectualism combine on the early albums from pop’s wilful auteur
Stylistic mash-ups of album number six result in perfect pop
The entertaining tale of the protracted birth of a British rock scene which took America on at its own game
Do YOU believe the hype?
Good things happen when one of Air collaborates with New Young Pony Clubber
Indie rockers go from strength to strength on album number six
Long-standing Swedish duo produce enjoyable if hit-and-miss electro-pop
Documentary paints the legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker as an irresponsible genius
Old school rockers mix Little Richard and The Cramps to pack a ferocious punch