“I have no doubt that in a short time, John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.” - Jimmy Webb
Oklahoma has proved fertile ground for songwriting over the years. From Albert Brumley and Woody Guthrie through Leon Russell and Jimmy Webb, Oklahoma has produced songwriters that pursued their singular vision and left the music world enriched, and often changed, by their contributions. Although it would be careless to suggest that an artist just releasing their debut album warrants a place in that group, John Fullbright’s From The Ground Up has some of the greats (see above) thinking that the 23-year-old might just have a place in that conversation someday soon.
John Fullbright was raised and still resides in Okemah, Oklahoma, a hometown he shares with Woody Guthrie (the photo on the album cover shows him on the front porch of the house that both he and his father grew up in). Music was a staple of the Fullbright household, mostly in the form of the family’s diverse and treasured album collection. “The most trouble I ever got in was when I had done something to one of my mother’s albums,” Fullbright recalls. The early pull of music was intense; he started playing piano at age 5, later picking up the guitar. His relative cultural isolation served him in that he had space to listen to his own developing voice, but when he was ready to make his way in the world, he benefitted greatly by being one hour from a great support system for singer-songwriters. The Blue Door, the legendary venue, took him in and exposed him to some of the greatest songwriters in the country as they would pass through town in concert. The founder of The Blue Door, Greg Johnson, was so taken by Fullbright’s talent, that he began managing him in order to open the necessary doors for his career to take root. Fullbright and Johnson released a live album in 2009 that set sales records at Woodyfest, the annual folk festival honoring Woody Guthrie.
Fullbright, like the more famous Okemahite, displays a distrust in power, whether temporal or divine, that is evident as soon as one drops the needle on From The Ground Up. In “Gawd Above,” he looks at the world through God’s eyes, and it is the Old Testament Yahweh, with His jealousy and manipulation, that is speaking. He jokingly refers to this song as his “Sympathy for the Creator.” Fullbright also skewers power run amok in the worldly sense in “The Fat Man,” a song that was inspired by a poem from Oklahoma poet Bert Lockwood. Over a Kurt Weill-like musical bed, he paints a picture of wealth and power personified as a puppeteer who pulls the strings necessary to further enrich himself. Fullbright implores his listener to fight the power and hypocrisy with a wrathful vengeance (“Cut the strings from his fingers/Wrap them twice around his throat/Show him not your kind mercy/From the laws that he forgot he wrote”). And in the standout “Satan and St. Paul,” he gives voice to an anger that accompanies the dissolution of faith in orthodox religiosity.
Fullbright traverses an emotional and musical terrain that is extremely broad, showing equal acuity with tender ballads and songs that make you want to drive faster with your window rolled down. In “Me Wanting You,” he shows a Haggard-like smoldering directness, with lyrics so simple and unambiguous, that the intended target cannot escape from their impact. “Song For A Child,” is a moving testament to the lasting bond between parents and their children (“Little boys grow up to be their daddies/That makes mamas love them even more/And even though the world may treat you badly/You'll be daddy's child forevermore/You'll remain a child forevermore”). In “Moving,” an unfolding sense of freedom brings the listener to a rocking, ecstatic state, while “Daydreamer” lays out a massive hook that juxtaposes nicely with the underlying nihilism of the lyric.
Fullbright co-produced the album with Wes Sharon (who also played bass on the album), the owner of 115 Studios in Norman, Oklahoma. Fullbright played many of the instruments on the album – all of piano and harmonica, almost all of the organ parts and much of the guitar work. Musicians from the legendary to the infamous lent their talents - Terry “Buffalo” Ware and Andrew Hardin added guitar, while Fats Kaplin played violin and steel guitar. Other musicians on the album are Giovanni Carnuccio III (drums), John Knudson (organ), Jess Klein (background vocals) and Ryan Engleman (guitar).
John Fullbright is a young man who finds love, beauty and pain in the here and now, but skepticism and disdain for those that would look past the world or take advantage of the dreams of those hoping for a better world. That he can articulate his worldview with an almost otherworldly precocity makes his debut studio album From The Ground Up worthy of attention. From the fertile ground of Oklahoma, another songwriting legend may be blooming.