Music Artist for September 2020: John Fullbright

“What’s so bad about happy?” John Fullbright sings on the opening track of his album, Songs. It’s a play on the writer’s curse, the notion that new material can only come through heartbreak or depression, that great art is only born from suffering.

That plainspoken approach is part of what’s fueled the young Oklahoman’s remarkable rise. In 2012 Fullbright released his debut studio album, From the Ground Up, to a swarm of critical acclaim. The LA Times called the record “preternaturally self-assured”, while NPR hailed him as one of the 10 Artists You Should Have Known in 2012, saying “it’s not every day a new artist…earns comparisons to great songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman, but Fullbright’s music makes sense in such lofty company”. The Wall Street Journal crowned him as giving one of the year’s 10 best live performances, and the album also earned him the ASCAP Foundation’s Harold Adamson Lyric Award. If there was any doubt that his debut announced the arrival of a songwriting force to be reckoned with, it was put to rest when From the Ground Up was nominated for Best Americana Album at the GRAMMY Awards, which placed Fullbright alongside some of the genre’s most iconic figures, including Bonnie Raitt.

But for Fullbright, it hasn’t been all the acclaim that means the most to him, but rather his entrance into a community of songwriters whose work he admires.

If there’s a recurring motif that jumps out upon first listen to Songs, it’s the act of writing, which is one Fullbright treats with the utmost respect. But just as important to Fullbright as writing is careful editing. Fullbright inhabits his songs’ narrators completely, his old-soul voice fleshing out complex characters and subtle narratives with a gifted sense of understatement.

The arrangements on Songs are stripped down to their cores and free of ornamentation. Fullbright’s guitar and piano anchor the record, while a minimalist rhythm section weaves in and out throughout the album. That’s not to say these are simple songs; Fullbright possesses a keen ear for memorable melody and a unique approach to harmony, moving through chord progressions far outside the expected confines of traditional folk or Americana. The performances are stark and direct, though, a deliberate approach meant to deliver the songs in their purest and most honest form.

The songs also reflect how drastically Fullbright’s life has changed since the release of From the Ground Up, which launched him into a rigorous schedule of international touring. “Going Home” finds him appreciating the simple pleasure of heading back to Oklahoma.

“I Didn’t Know” is a song he premiered live at concert hosted by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, a story he tells still somewhat incredulously, while “When You’re Here” is a somber piano love song, and “The One That Lives Too Far” is a raw account of the strain that distance can put on a romantic relationship. “All That You Know”, which features just voice and Wurlitzer, implores listeners to appreciate what’s right in front of them, and the finger-picked “Keeping Hope Alive” is a song of resilience through hard times.

To be sure, Songs has its moments of darkness, tracks born from pain and heartbreak, but for a craftsman like Fullbright, there are few greater joys than carving emotion into music, taking a stab at that lofty goal of immortality through song. It makes him—and his fans—happy, and there’s nothing bad about that.

“I am very honored to be a part of this great music community in Oklahoma and thankful for all involved making it happen,” said Fullbright. “We have a lot of great songwriters in Oklahoma that need to be heard.”

For more information about John Fullbright and to listen to his music, visit his listing in the Oklahoma Music Directory.

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