By Lynne Margolis
(LSM July/Aug 2014/vol 7 – issue 4)
John Fullbright likes to joke that he’d have trouble naming a cat, much less an album. But the truth behind the title of his new release, Songs, has nothing to do with mere indecision, or even a case of laziness.
That choice, it turns out, is intended to reflect the album’s true essence — and Fullbright’s greatest desire in life, which really is to write songs. Songs that speak for themselves — that come from the soul and penetrate the heart, and don’t need ruffles and feathers or any other fancy adornments to distract from their mission. Songs that inspire fellow tunesmiths such as Butch Hancock to say, while sharing the stage during a beyond-sold-out song pull at Austin’s renowned Cactus Cafe: “Every once in a while, you hear a song you wish you’d written. Tonight, I’ve heard about a dozen.”
In fact, the songs on Songs, the follow- up to Fullbright’s Grammy-nominated 2012 debut, From the Ground Up, are so strong, their arrangements wound up having to be stripped nearly naked to allow more air for their nuances to breathe, like wine. The spare, uncluttered approach doesn’t just enhance a word here, a note there. It gives these compositions an energy, a power that carries both the blast of gale-force winds and the electricity of a feather-light caress — either of which can totally blow a listener away.
In the two years since From the Ground Up, Fullbright, now 26, has elevated his already substantial songwriting and performing prowess to new heights; as his confidence has grown, so has his comfort level — as both a writer willing to reveal his psyche and a player able to relax and have fun, even groove a little, onstage. (Not to mention tell jokes both genuinely funny and utterly groan-worthy.)
But the buzz that’s been building since overnighters at Okemah, Okla.’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival first started talking about this new campfire kid a half-dozen years ago has turned into such loud trumpeting, including stellar reviews from just about every media outlet that matters, because Fullbright is not just another hot young talent. He’s the rare entity who makes you just as excited to consider what he might do 10, 20 or 40 years from now, who might become as revered as his own heroes — from Townes Van Zandt to Harry Nilsson — or even bigger names, if he chooses, though stardom is not his goal.
He doesn’t envision himself as a stadium-stage puppet viewable via giant screens, a la fellow piano men Billy Joel or Elton John; he’s more of a Randy Newman guy. And unlike those players, he’s also an adept guitarist. But regardless of the venue or instrument, Fullbright’s performances are something to behold. He simply knows how to command attention, whether he’s pounding out Chuck Berry’s “Downbound Train” on piano, as he did for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum’s American Music Masters tribute; dropping fellow Okie Leon Russell’s influences into Porter Grainger’s bluesy “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” — a show-stopper complete with hound- dog-howlin’, Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-Paul McCartney “wooohs”; or bringing an audience to pin-drop silence with just a few bars of his love song, “She Knows.”
“He’s the finest young songwriter I’ve ever encountered, period. And he is one of the best musicians I’ve ever known,” says Greg Johnson, owner of the Blue Door, the Oklahoma City listening room where Fullbright got his start; he also serves as Fullbright’s manager, though he swears, “I’ll stand on anybody’s coffee table and scream that, ‘cause it’s true. It has nothing to do with me managing him.”
A skilled instrumentalist who started playing piano at 5, followed by guitar in his early teens, Fullbright’s also got the kind of vocal ability that lets him slide from a low whisper to a cloud-grabbing wail with seeming effortlessness. There’s an undertow to his voice — not really a whiskey-burn or cigarette scratch, nothing that obvious, but something — that adds depth we don’t expect to hear from a guy his age.
Reflected in the shiny lacquer of a concert grand in an elegant theater, his face is just now starting to show enough contouring to justify removing the “baby” prefix from descriptions. He seems to lose a few years, however, when he clips a harmonica rack around his neck or stands at a microphone with his guitar. That youthfulness is heightened by the cleft in his chin and the way he wears his medium brown hair — parted far to one side in a sort of ’60s look that has nothing to do with trying to be retro cool; it’s more like the kid actor in a Lost in Space-era television show.
Fullbright, it must be noted, could absolutely care less about being hip (which, paradoxically, would make him more so, if it mattered). Raised on an 80-acre farm in Bearden, Okla., a 7.6-square-mile town of fewer than 150 residents, he just might have been a bit lost in time. He lives in a house originally owned by his grandfather — the same house in which he spent his first nine years. His parents likely conceived him there; they now live “next door,” a quarter-mile down the road, in a house his grandfather built. That’s where he spent the rest of his growing-up years. His older brother Michael (John’s the youngest of three brothers spaced over nine years) recently moved back to Oklahoma with his family, and his sister- in-law just opened a much-needed coffee shop in Okemah, the nearest actual town.
Fullbright claims he wouldn’t have his sense of humor — which leans toward sly, dry and subtle, though when close friends and alcohol are involved, he reveals a repertoire of off-color jokes — if it weren’t for Michael. Judging from his tendency toward self-deprecation and gift for sometimes- mocking, just-clever-enough wordplay, one suspects that’s highly unlikely. His girlfriend, Angelica Baca, swears he’s actually the life of the party, and guitarist Terry “Buffalo” Ware, who performs on both of Fullbright’s studio albums and many of his road gigs, notes his stage patter has gotten downright funny. Unlike his friend Kevin Russell, Fullbright skips ham, but he sure goes for wry.
To record the 12 tracks on Songs, Fullbright returned to his friend and co- producer Wes Sharon’s 115 Recording in Norman, Okla., where he successfully created From the Ground Up after scratching an earlier attempt.
Songs had a bump or two as well, according to Johnson. After hearing the first batch of songs, he recalls, “I said, ‘Well, John, compared to anyone else out there, this is really great. Compared to you, it’s not.’ Ooh, he was not happy. He was mad as hell.” Johnson’s musical sensibilities are well honed; he spent several years as an Austin-based music journalist before returning to his home state, where he opened the Blue Door 22 years ago. That’s where he first heard Fullbright, then a cheeky teenager. Actually, their first meeting went so badly, it’s surprising they bonded as strongly as they have. As Johnson recalls, Fullbright showed up during a memorial for Red Dirt Rambler Bob Childers, “and he was talkin’ shit.”
Fullbright, who overheard this account, admits, “I had more of a punk mentality then, but basically, you were either in on the joke or you weren’t.” Laughing, he adds, “Poor Greg. He’s an easy target — easy to rile up. We had some fun at his expense and he gave me his famous line about ‘you haven’t paid your dues yet.’”
Eventually, Johnson got a chance to hear what Fullbright could do. “I could tell by the melodic structures of his songs that it was in Jimmy-Webb-melody world,” he says. “It was that strong. He also had this Townes Van Zandt thing goin’. I told somebody, ‘I swear to God, this is like Jimmy Webb and Townes Van Zandt in the same fucking body.’”
He called and told him, “I’ve never said this to an artist before, but I want to work with you. I think I could help you out.’”
Johnson relates this story while sitting backstage at Austin’s State Theatre, where Fullbright performed an album release show in May. Baca, a dark-haired beauty from New Mexico, sits nearby. She and Fullbright have been dating about a year, but have been friends for 10. (Fullbright’s brother Michael, Baca’s close friend and former roommate — he shared a house with her and her then- boyfriend near the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, Calif. — actually dated her sister at one time.) As Fullbright’s voice soars from the stage during soundcheck, she confirms that he was indeed angry at Johnson’s appraisal of his new recordings, but that he also gruffly admitted, “‘Greg’s not wrong about this kind of stuff.’”
Johnson adds, “That wasn’t easy for me to do. I mean, I’m known to be blunt and speak my mind completely sometimes, to my detriment. But with somebody like John, I just instinctively know when something’s really working, when something’s really clickin’.
“I knew that John would … John deliberates a lot,” Johnson continues. “He takes a long time to come to a decision. And I always get all frustrated and go, ‘fuck it. Whatever happens, happens.’ … And then he called and said, ‘I had an epiphany.’ I said, ‘Imagine that!’” Johnson laughs heartily. “He said, ‘We’re gonna strip this back; we’re gonna go in and redo it.’
“So he comes back and he brings me this little record. And I said, ‘This is fantastic. This is it. It’s simple. It’s you.’
“It’s really the story of a young man growing up,” Johnson says. “Not just finding new love, not just [finding his path]. From 20 to 26, I’ve seen this kid grow as a man. And I’ve always told him, ‘John, I’m more concerned about your personal life and your happiness than I am about your music career. If that ever starts gettin’ squirrelly, then it’s time to think of something else.’”
After running out of time for an interview at the State Theatre, Fullbright and I agree to catch up by phone. By the time we do, it’s five weeks later, the album has come out, and he’s just returned home for a few days amid nearly non-stop touring, including the first of three European trips this summer. For the first time, he and his players (a somewhat rotating list including Ware and bassist David Leach) shared a camper, staying in state parks. Baca accompanied them, learning the ropes of tour support (from merch sales and driving to emotional rescue). After almost nightly performances and a full-court press and radio push, they were thrilled to be back at the homestead — a subject Fullbright addresses on the Songs tune, “Going Home.”
Asked if he felt any pressure to outdo the first album, he answers, “Yeah, but what I figured out was that pressure only exists within the confines of my own mind. It’s not like I have a team of people who survive because of the John Fullbright operation or campaign. It really is just my own brain, my own ego, where the pressure exists. Once I came to terms with that — in the studio, as we were recording — I could make that pressure go away, because it’s not real. And no one else really cares. I had to just make the best album I could make.”
Before he could do that, however, he had to, he says, “find goals.” He decided his main one was “to make a record that represented who I am right now, and not a persona that some people expect or want you to be.
“I’m a better vocalist and performer and musician than I was two years ago,” he continues, “and I didn’t want to make a record that was so swamped with production that you couldn’t hear that. That was the main pressure: putting an album out there that was so stripped down and so raw in so many ways. Not just instrumentation; I mean the subject matter. It’s so raw and it’s so personal and so intimate that I didn’t want a bunch of people goin’ ‘This doesn’t sound like the last record; we wanted another From the Ground Up.’”
He was all ready with his defense: “‘Look a little deeper, and you’ll find everything that you need in this record. It’s multi-layered. It’s well thought out.’” A negative reaction would have stung, but he would have gotten over it and moved on to the next record. Luckily, that defense proved unnecessary.
As for the revamping, which pushed Songs’ release back two weeks, Fullbright clarifies: “I don’t want to say that we came in and recorded a whole record and just said this sucks and went back in, because that’s not what happened. You have to think about how these records — From the Ground Up and Songs — are made. [Wes Sharon and I] don’t have a clear plan going in. I got a handful of randomly written songs that reflect what I’ve been thinking or experiences that I’ve had. And we throw ’em all on the table and we look at ’em and go, ‘Is there any common theme here? Is there any common thread?’ And we start trying to build these songs up.
“A couple of these songs sounded different when we first started out. And a couple songs didn’t make it because they didn’t make sense. … And that’s a decision I have to make. But there definitely was some fighting going on — the song fighting itself, trying to figure out whether it was a stripped-down piano song or a great big band song. But at the end of the day, it’s gonna tell you what it wants. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s because it’s not right. You need to go back and try again. … There’s millions and millions and millions of options when it comes to recording a song, and you just have to go with your gut instinct. It’ll work, if you just listen to your gut.”
Case in point: the song “Going Home,” an almost jaunty tune complete with a whistling interlude, as well as a few almost nonsensical-sounding lyrics (i.e., “crooked limps from crooked mens,” one of those many lines that require deeper contemplation — and yes, even the cough after the line “the voice stopped singing” is intentional).
“‘Going Home’ was this huge song, with a lot of production,” Fullbright says. “And I’d sit and get a little crazy with overdubs. It was just this slow-rocking little ballad, and it just never sounded right. It was so big that it lost energy, if that makes any sense. So we went back. What you hear on that record was a live recording of me and a bass player in one room looking at each other, and all that harmonica stuff was live-tracked. We went back and added a couple of things. And then stopped and said, ‘We don’t need to add one more thing. The energy’s there; the performance is there. It’s all good.’
“I always listen to something that I’ve recorded and think, ‘Would I buy this? Would I listen to this? Would I feel anything if I were listening to this?’ Because it’s not about you; it’s about your listener. A lot of times I’ll listen to something that I’ve worked really hard on and say, ‘You know what? I’ve put a lot of work into this, but it really doesn’t mean anything to anyone else but me.’ And I’ll start again. I do the same thing with songwriting.”
Told that’s a hefty insight for someone who’s still rather young, he tosses the notion of sage wisdom aside, saying, “Aw, you know, you just have to look at it in terms of who’s listening. Why are they listening? What do I have to offer; what do I have to bring to the table? If all you’re doing is just forwarding your diary and saying, ‘I’m sad,’ and not trying to say, ‘Have you ever been sad? Here’s my sad. What’s your sad like?’ …” With a laugh, he adds, “There’s a certain little magic line of empathy when it comes to songwriting that you just have to jump in. And if you don’t get it right, you gotta scrap it and try to do something else.”
Pulling the listener in with empathy. Like the Penn & Teller of songwriting, he’s just exposed the trick.
“That’s 100 percent it,” he confirms.
Another of life’s mysteries, solved. His young-genius reputation — of which he’s very wary, by the way — just got some new cement.
WATCH ME PULL A SONG OUT OF MY HAT
There’s a song on Songs called “Write A Song” (layer alert, for those in need) that conveys just how good Fullbright is at making the magic. Over gentle electric guitar chords, he sings, in a weary, melancholy voice:
Write a song
Write a song about the very song you sing Pen a line about a line within a line
Write a song about a song.
He follows that stanza with:
Think a thought
Think a thought about the very
thought you think
Hold the pen and write a line about the ink Think a thought about a thought.
On paper, those words might set off every cliché alarm in your head, along with concerns about whether he’s over-reaching for cleverness. But then he throws in the next verse:
Live a life
Live a life that is a life you want to live Give a gift that to you will always give God knows fear is not afraid.
There’s the money shot, so to speak. The words to the universe. But even so, it’s the music that elevates this song to a thing of arresting beauty instead of the songwriting equivalent of, shall we say, self-pleasuring.
Fullbright confesses “Write A Song” did indeed start out as a joke.
“I hate songs about songs, unless it’s John Hartford, or somebody [else] who’s real good at it,” he explains. “There’s a trend in country music now where it’s like, ‘Rolling down the back roads, listening to “Sweet Home Alabama.”’ You can’t do that! You can’t write a song about a song you like. You have to write your own fucking songs. It makes me so mad. So I wrote that as kind of a protest. But what happened was, I wrote the words down and it was really funny to me. If you just read it, it’s different than listening to it. And I don’t know if it was a mistake or not, but musically, it’s almost kind of sad, like really bittersweet. I don’t know why it turned out like that, but it did. It’s almost confusing when you hear it, because you can’t tell if it’s really sentimental or if it’s really playful or what. And I didn’t like it; I didn’t like that song very much.
“I played it for a couple of my friends, and I ended up posting it on SoundCloud, which is where a lot of my songs go to die. I always put kind of ridiculous demos and stuff on there. It’s not a business tool for me; it’s just something I mess with. But I posted it on SoundCloud and left it up there for a couple of days, and of all people, Kevin Russell sent me a message. He said, ‘Hey, that song you posted on SoundCloud really knocked me out. It’s so good. You should put that on the record.”
Russell, for the uninitiated, also goes by the nom de singer-songwriter Shinyribs. He’s been gaining considerable renown in the Americana/folk world Fullbright inhabits — even more than he had with his former band, the Gourds.
“That gave me confidence to say, ‘You know, it’s not bad. Maybe I will put it on the record,’” Fullbright says. “I sent him a note right when the record came out — just a thanks. I would not have recorded that song if he hadn’t said anything.”
Russell is far from the only songwriter noticing Fullbright’s work. In 2012, his friend and fellow Oklahoma native Jimmy Webb presented him with the ASCAP Foundation’s Harold Adamson Lyric Award for “Moving,” which appears on From the Ground Up and Fullbright’s very first recording, 2009’s Live at the Blue Door. (They’ve performed together there, and in May, both helped celebrate the first anniversary of Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center.)
On June 27, Fullbright received the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame’s Rising Star Award. On June 30, he appeared at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live. Before taking off for his latest European sojourn, he headlined WoodyFest, the annual musical birthday celebration for Okemah’s most famous son. That’s the same WoodyFest where Fullbright first earned notice as a young troubadour; where Butch Hancock first heard him play. Where he often sits in with pals including Michael Fracasso, Oklahoma-reared Kevin Welch and Welch’s son, Dustin — one of Fullbright’s best friends, as well as occasional tour manager and co-author of the sneering From the Ground Up commentary, “Gawd Above.”
“It feels great,” Fullbright says of the recognition. “The one thing I wanted when I came into this was validation from my peers, and now I’m getting it. In that sense, it’s a dream come true.”
But he takes care to keep it all in perspective. In 2013, after losing the Best Americana Album Grammy to Bonnie Raitt’s Slipstream and Americana Music awards for Best Album and Emerging Artist of the Year — the former went to Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, the latter to his Shovels & Rope pals — Fullbright said he was glad he didn’t take home those awards. (And he certainly wasn’t sad about losing to Raitt. For the record, the other nominees were the self-titled Lumineers album, the Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter and Mumford & Sons’ Babel.)
Was he afraid of getting too famous too fast, or that he wasn’t yet worthy or that such awards would steal his focus? “That’s a good question,” he responds, “because it is a marathon, it’s not a race. It’s not about who gets to the top first; it’s about who stays there.
“But it’s really not about getting to the top at all, is it?” he continues. “It’s about being true to yourself. It’s about being sustainable. That’s my main thing. It’s like, with the big bad music business and songwriting and all this stuff, is it a sustainable operation, or is it just something that young people get credit for and then disregard as they reach a certain point, or a certain age? I don’t care about any of that stuff. I’m just trying to be the best John Fullbright that I can be, whether I’m writing a song or building a birdhouse.”
SERIOUSLY, IT’S THE SONGS
“We were planning for a little slower build,” Johnson acknowledges. “But I also told John, ‘That Grammy thing, I don’t care what people are telling you. It means nothing. All it means is a bunch of people in the industry favored you over somebody else.’ Don’t get me wrong; all of us who’ve been in the business forever, we bitch and moan and cuss about the Grammys unless one of our friends or one of the people we really like wins, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ So I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth and say, ‘Well, no, we’re not gonna take it.’ I don’t believe in that, either. But I also believe in takin’ it with a grain of salt and realizing that it’s just one step on the path.
“What I like about working with John, as opposed to other people I could be working with, is that it’s all about the song quality and about getting better at what you do,” Johnson continues. “Not getting more famous; not gettin’ more celebrity; not getting more of this and more of that. It’s nice that the money is really decent now and John’s not gonna have to totally struggle. But it’s all about being a better songwriter and a better artist. He just wants to get better as a writer and be as good as he can be. And that’s the kind of people I want to work with.”
Watching Fullbright perform at venues all over Austin, hotel ballrooms and suites-turned-listening-rooms at International Folk Alliance conferences in Memphis and Kansas City, indoor and outdoor stages (and after-hours gatherings) at WoodyFest, and even Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, has been like witnessing a bird graduate from flying to soaring. From feeling the breeze to catching the wind — and riding it like a surfer rides waves. Aside from the fact that he’s clearly enjoying himself more onstage (and earning frequent standing ovations), he’s learned to communicate his thoughts in interviews — and avoid communicating those he’d rather not reveal — with a finesse some artists twice his age haven’t mastered.
Surprisingly, Fullbright confesses, “You know, I dropped out of [college] because I was too shy. I couldn’t raise my hand in class. I couldn’t speak in front of a group of people. And now here I am.
“But it’s different,” he adds. “It’s more of a one-sided conversation. I’ve got an hour and half to speak my mind, whether you like it or not. When I first started, I was trying to please everybody under the sun. If I didn’t bring [down] the house, I was concerned. I worked so hard at trying to please and impress everybody. And I don’t do that so much now. Now it’s just trying to be more comfortable and more confident onstage. Accolades don’t hurt in that regard, I’ll admit that. Being able to say ‘Grammy-nominated’ anything, that doesn’t hurt the old confidence at all. Not that it even means anything. You say it to your uncle and he’s mighty impressed. It doesn’t mean that you’re any good or not. It just means that people are impressed. But being out there and just doin’ it every night, you have to get better at it.”
He’s actually a little off-base regarding that Grammy nod; it really did mean something, particularly because From the Ground Up, released on his own Blue Dirt label, earned it without any organized lobbying effort.
“It came about organically,” he agrees, “and then we had a choice. It was basically, ‘Do you want to pour a bunch of money into this and get the story out there of how grassroots it is and try to get people swayed and get votes?’ Most people don’t know that’s how it works; it’s just as much politics as anything. And I said ‘Hell, no. I’m not gonna put money into something like that. It doesn’t mean anything.’ And we didn’t.”
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT …?
Unlike From the Ground Up, which offered a more narrative approach, only one of Songs’ tracks, “High Road,” tells a story with characters. The rest of these lyrics are clearly personal, a head-on confrontation with loss and longing, love and, yes, contentment — as well as the craft of writing, from Fullbright’s curtain-lifting, and certainly sarcastic, perspective. The opening track, “Happy,” poses the question, “What’s so bad about happy?” as if it’s the plea of a lonely man dying to find out. Fullbright has mentioned that it actually questions why songwriters — or artists in general — find so much more inspiration from misery.
“I wrote it as a joke to myself,” he says. “‘What’s so bad about happy?’ What a ludicrous thing to ask.”
The world-weariness Fullbright conveyed on From the Ground Up is still there, and still belies his age. What’s striking is how he plays it against his current optimism, giving this album a balance that feels both oddly precarious and just right. And thank goodness he pulled back on the production. It would be an outright sin to clutter up the stark, stunning power of a couplet like I didn’t know about silence/until you were gone. Or the lines In my heart stands a scarecrow/if he’s hurt he doesn’t say so/and he chases everything he loves away. Or all those exceptional melodies, which insert themselves very deeply into the brain, and stay there.
Fullbright, it turns out, is less inclined to talk about love than sing about it; he deftly deflects questions about his relationship with Baca. She’s more forthcoming, however, noting that only one song, the gorgeous “She Knows,” is actually about her. But Johnson rightly observes that songs can morph in meaning over time, for both writer and listener. Regardless of who they’re about, it does make one curious.
“I’ve had a couple of relationships,” Fullbright offers. “That’s not something I advertise. But yeah, I mean, I’m a grown person.”
As a shy kid, did he find himself fulfilling the “friend” role?
“Hell, no,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t even a friend! I started playin’ the guitar just so I could have a leg up, and then it didn’t even work ’cause I got obsessive about it and I ignored all other social aspects of my life. So it kind of came around and bit me in the ass. But I don’t worry so much about that stuff now.”
He tells audiences that “Very First Time,” the song that closes Songs like a sigh of relief, is the first really truthful song he’s ever written. It contains the lyric, Between love everlasting/and meaningless rhyme/sits feeling good for the very first time.
While attending one of Fullbright’s South By Southwest showcases “just as a fan,” Dustin Welch mentions that Fullbright wrote “Very First Time” while sitting in a bathtub, without even touching an instrument (“without making a sound,” Fullbright later clarifies). “By the time the water drained out, he had the song,” Welch marvels.
“There was a breakup involved,” Fullbright says, “and just kind of coming to terms with this life; everyone’s life, I guess. But this life can be such a — like just a damned NASCAR race sometimes. It’s like who can get there first, and stuff gets broken along the way. It becomes very easy to get overwhelmed and to just say to hell with it; I’m just gonna roll with it. If you’re not making decisions, someone else is making a decision for you, and I got pretty good at letting other people make my decisions because I was so overwhelmed that I would just sit, silently. After some stuff had gone down, I woke up and said, ‘You know what? I’m as good as I’ve ever been in every way, and it’s time to stand up and start taking control of my life.’ And that song was that — a rebirth of John Fullbright. Just me going, ‘This is who I am. Exactly. Put into words. And this is the dawning of a new age.’ That sentiment fuels a lot of this record.
“I am content now, right now, in my life, because I get onstage and I say what I mean and I mean what I say,” he continues. “And it’s taken me so long to figure out how to do that. That’s how I am in everyday life. That’s how I am with everyone that I know and everyone that I love, but I could never be that person onstage; there was too much anxiety and self-doubt. And right now, I’m actually starting to move toward that person. And to not have to — I wouldn’t say act out a part, but it is sort of like that. I don’t have to get onstage and be falsely confident and act out this character, because I’m actually being myself onstage. And good lord, the confidence that comes with that is so empowering. The happiness, like, it’s really great. I want to see how long I can ride this thing out before the inevitable next wave.”
Even though he laughs when he says it, he’s reminded to consider the longevity some of his heroes have had. (OK, the longevity Randy Newman has had. Van Zandt and Nilsson, not so much — though musically, they’re still going strong.)
“You have to ask yourself what you want,” he responds. “That’s so much of it. Because I never knew what I wanted. I wanted to write songs, and people couldn’t accept that. ‘Sure, you want to write songs, but what else?’ ‘I don’t know. I’ve never done this.’ Now I’m starting to inch toward knowing exactly what I want.”
ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD
John Fullbright is 26 years old. His new sophomore album is even better than his Grammy-nominated debut. He’s in love; he’s got a presumably mortgage-free home; and he’s got a deep well of songs, like the recent concert addition “Stars,” that might even be better than anything he’s already recorded. So what does he want, exactly?
Well, believe it or not, he’d like to get off the road at some point, at least for a bit. He recognizes that career momentum is not a thing to ignore, but he’s already thinking about scheduling a break. Though Baca describes Fullbright as generally reserved and fond of his privacy, he says that’s not it; he finds it’s easy enough to hide when he needs to, and when he traveled alone, he stayed in his room, sad and lonely. With others, he’s more likely to explore and sightsee. “That keeps you happy,” he says. “It keeps you thinking that you’re lucky to be able to travel instead of unlucky and forced to travel.”
But it gets back to the sentiments expressed in “Going Home.”
“I didn’t get into this because I needed to be on the road for 360 days a year and playing a show every night in a different city,” he says. “That came accidentally. Not to say I’m not grateful for the people who come out to shows, but it does take its toll, psychologically and physically. I can probably do a better job of dialing that back a little bit, and I’ve been workin’ on that. I’d say two years from now, my schedule will not be the same as it is right now.”
At home, he’s got family, including nieces and nephews. He’s got history, and inspiration. Friends. And quiet time. The woods. The barely broken-in half-gas, half-charcoal grill he got for his birthday in April (he claims to be “not a terrible cook”).
Of course, touring less might also mean touring bigger. He doesn’t see himself headlining arenas and stadiums, but knows better than to say never. “There’s definitely an aspect to this that I didn’t ask for, as far as just, like, the need to be onstage and the need to be loved by thousands of strangers, and to show off and shake my ass,” Fullbright admits. “I don’t have a lot of that, ’cause it’s not in me. Not that I can’t do it. I can certainly do it.” But those who’d like to see that John Fullbright shouldn’t hold their breath. Even if he should find himself in enormodomes, he’d likely use a Bruce Springsteen approach, where the music, not a stage set or prancing dancers — or his own ass — is the focus.
He says he’s more worried “about the day I say fuck it and walk away and then figure out that that wasn’t a smart thing to do.”
“I’m more inclined to do that than to change who I am as an artist,” he confesses. “So yeah, we’ll see. I plan on taking a little time off and maybe even going and getting a real job for a little while, just to make sure that I’m not completely losing my mind. I’m pretty handy. I could always find something to do. I can work outside. I can work inside. It doesn’t really matter. As long I’m not working with an asshole, I don’t really care.”
But first, there’s another trip to Europe. And a fall tour with Shovels & Rope. And the Cayamo cruise in January. And if another Grammy nomination should materialize, maybe a February trip to Los Angeles.
The road, it seems, isn’t yet ready to give him up. In which case, he’ll keep reminding himself to roll over its bumps and potholes by repeating the mantra, “I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve any special treatment.”
Because he damned sure knows writing songs about songs — or anything else — is a pretty awesome job to have.