John Fullbright Lays Down His Roots

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Wes Sharon is enjoying a quiet afternoon at 115 Recording, his hole-in-the-wall recording studio in Norman, Oklahoma. There’s a drum session scheduled for 2 o’clock, and John Fullbright – Sharon’s most well-known client, back in Oklahoma for a week of vacation before hitting the road again – might stop by during the evening. Still, for a studio that churned out a Top 20 country album (Turnpike Troubadours’ Goodbye Normal Street) and a Grammy-nominated folk record (Fullbright’s From The Ground Up) in 2012, day-to-day life at 115 Recording has been surprisingly normal.

“When John got the Grammy nomination,” Sharon says, “we both thought, ‘Wow, man, it’s gonna get super busy!’ But honestly, nothing’s changed. I’ve done some interviews, and John is playing a lot of shows … but as far as my own work goes, it’s business as usual.”

It’s early January, and the 55th Grammy Awards are still a month away. Nominees were announced back in December, and From The Ground Up – Fullbright’s studio debut, recorded and mixed on a shoestring budget in three short weeks – received a nod for “Best Americana Album.” It was an unexpected nomination, landing Fullbright alongside contenders like Mumford & Sons, Bonnie Raitt and The Avett Brothers. Other Oklahoma natives received nominations, too, but virtually all of them – Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Ronnie Dunn, Vince Gill – are country megastars.

“We kind of feel like the ugly girl at the dance,” Sharon jokes. “We did that record for nothing, you know? It was literally a fraction of a fraction of the Avett Brothers’ budget. We’re so proud of what we created, though. We’re calling it ‘the little record that could.’”

Meanwhile, seventy miles down the I-40 East, John Fullbright is enjoying a similarly quiet afternoon in Bearden. With 140 residents and 7.5 square miles of land, Bearden is almost too small to be considered a small town, its biggest claim to fame being the proximity to Okemah, Woody Guthrie’s birthplace. Fullbright grew up here, in the same single-story farmhouse that graces the cover of From The Ground Up. The house is his now, and his parents live in a newer home next door. Evan Felker, frontman of Turnpike Troubadours, lives nearby, but this isn’t a very rock and roll neighborhood. Did we mention that his parents live next door?

“I sound like a dweeb,” he admits, “but I miss this when I’m gone. I miss being at home with my piano. I don’t really have any hobbies. At night, the only thing I wanna do is sit at this piano with a drink and just fool around, you know? And maybe watch ‘Boardwalk Empire.’”

Fullbright started fooling around on the piano when he was five years old. He taught himself the basics, then graduated to boogie-woogie and blues. At his mom’s insistence, he started taking formal lessons, but the only lessons that seemed to stick were the self-taught ones, like how to hear a jingle on a TV commercial and replicate the melody on piano. He began writing his own tunes while still in elementary school. Years later, after picking up the acoustic guitar and learning a batch of country songs, a teenaged Fullbright talked his way into a weekly gig at a restaurant in Okemah, where he played cover tunes for tips and free catfish.

“I would start at 7:00 and sing until my voice went out,” he remembers. “It would take four hours sometimes, just singing these country tunes and a few rock songs where I’d have to scream. If you scream into a microphone long enough, you’ll figure out your strengths and your limitations pretty fast. That’s all I did that summer, and that’s how I found my singing voice. It was the summer of screaming.”

Fullbright certainly screams on From The Ground Up. He also croons, slurs, sneers and hollers, attacking the louder songs with the fire-and-brimstone delivery of a Southern preacher and singing the piano ballads in a frank, conversational baritone. It’s a rootsy, greasy, blue-collar sound, one that that falls under the broad umbrella of Americana, but Fullbright’s songwriting is more specific than that term allows. He veers between Bible-beating gospel, midwestern folk, roadhouse country-blues and old-school rock and roll, performing some songs as a solo singer-songwriter and kicking up dust with a full band on the others. Justin Townes Earle and Ryan Bingham do something similar, but Fullbright doesn’t really sound like them. He just sounds like Fullbright.

“I first saw him play at a tiny bar in downtown Norman, right by the college,” Sharon remembers. “There were about five people there. I didn’t know him, and I remember thinking, ‘That can’t possibly be the guitar this guy owns. I think it was a shitty Seagull or something. He had a tiny P.A., too. Everything about the performance sounded so much better than what it appeared to be, though. He just killed it. He’d do a cover of a Bob Dylan song or a Steve Earle song, and it didn’t even sound like that other person had ever played it. And on top of it all, he looked like he was about 15. It was mind boggling. This little kid was up there owning the stage.”

When the Turnpike Troubadours headed to Sharon’s studio several months later to record their second album, Diamonds & Gasoline, Fullbright was brought in to do some accordion overdubs. He and Sharon began hitting it off during smoke breaks, becoming fast friends and fans of each other’s work.

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