John Fullbright has a way of sending his listeners scrambling to compare him with the greats. His big delivery and the lingering darkness of his songs evoke Mickey Newbury, and his voice shares something with the singing of Leon Russell and Steve Earle. On "Gawd Above," the first song on his debut studio release, From the Ground Up, the 24-year-old inhabits the role of God as gangsta; on the next cut, "Jericho," he plays an everyman Joshua. The one-two punch of that narrative range recalls a Townes Van Zandt or a Randy Newman.
Of course, sharing a birthplace with Woody Guthrie — Okemah, Oklahoma (population 2,800) — draws Fullbright the most notice. But Guthrie's legend seems to have stalked Fullbright, rather than the other way around. WoodyFest, the Okemah folk festival honoring Guthrie, debuted when Fullbright was 9 years old, but it was awhile before he attended.
"Neither one of my folks had a real interest in it," Fullbright explains backstage at a recent Oklahoma City gig. "I didn't have any interest in it. I didn't know who Woody Guthrie was — and didn't care to know, really. It was just like he wasn't there. 'Who is Woody Guthrie? Ah, he's some kind of entertainer.' "
Despite not knowing any musicians (his father worked at the local prison, his mother taught school, and he saw his grandmother touch her piano only once or twice), Fullbright says his talent surfaced at a young age. "When I was 5, my older brothers say I could hear a melody on a commercial and figure it out on the piano," he says, fingering an invisible keyboard. "There was a piano in my grandma's house that was pretty much mine morning, noon and night. If I had spare time, I'd go over there. That was my whole world."
He considered a music career early on. "But I didn't know what that meant," he says. "I mean, for all I knew, if you were going to play piano for a living, you put on tails and walked out onto a stage in a spotlight to a 9-foot Steinway, and you played classical music. That's what it was for me. There was no songwriter plan. The black guys played the cooler music, but I couldn't do that because I was a little white kid in Oklahoma." There was no "lightning-bolt moment," he adds. "It was a real slow process."
Fullbright tried out a lot of different styles before arriving at the sort of folk rock that's come to define his sound. "Chopin's my favorite," he says. "He does stuff that is just — it'll make you an emotional wreck. But I was also a Cake fan in high school, and I listened to whatever — like that Dr. Dre The Chronic album. Who didn't listen to that thing 10,000 times?"
He also discovered some gems among his mother's records. "She had this huge collection of kind of middle-of-the-road stuff," he says. "But every once in a while there'd be something like Frank Zappa's Hot Rats, and she wouldn't play it. So naturally, 12- or 13-year-old me was going to grab that and play it on my own record player."
After he picked up the guitar, Fullbright recalls, "I was desperately wanting to play with some people. And my dad had the wisdom to take me to some little-old-man bluegrass jams. That was my first taste of sitting down with anybody at anything."
That interest in playing with other musicians is what finally got him to the campgrounds at 16. "I went to my first WoodyFest, and they were playing him between sets, on the loudspeakers, and I go, 'Oh, shit, is that him?' I thought he lived in 1890 or something. So, yeah, I got my education late. But I learned that raising your foot means the song's about to end, and everybody gets a turn, and all these little rules — a seventh means it's going to the fourth. Musically, I owe a helluva lot to being able to learn that language."
Anyone who has seen Fullbright improvise with other musicians knows he has learned that language well. Still, his gorgeous and stately songwriting is what sets him apart. He believes in earning trust, following through on his promises and speaking only when he has something to say, and those sensibilities mark From the Ground Up as a substantial studio debut, a piece of work that heralds a career poised for greatness.
"When I first started writing, at about 6, I'd feel strange or be in a bad mood, and I'd just write and see what happened," he says. "It was about me. It was about the key of me. But my songwriting's broadening. It's slowly getting bigger and covering more ground. I've got a clearer vision and a lot of different tools that I can grab to make a point."
Songs like "Jericho," "Daydreamer" and "Fat Man" sound particularly visionary, though "Fat Man" is the only one that's explicitly political. In many of Fullbright's songs, instead of playing the folk hero, he vows to rise to the occasion if the audience stands up to be counted. It's a modest approach to anthems that feel close to the spirit of Guthrie. Fullbright gets it. "It's like a Dust Bowl mentality that I grew up around," he says. "You don't trust anybody, you know what I mean? It's like, 'You make the first move,' that kind of a thing. And the loudest person in the room knows the least."