The Proof is in the Lyrics

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Woody Fest 2011
Woody Fest 2011
Woody Fest 2009
Regency Texas 2009

A Conversation with Oklahoma’s Own John Fullbright

By Tommye Hendley Waltman

The first time I met John Fullbright was at an after-hours jam held at Gary Smalley’s BBQ joint in Chandler about 5 years ago– small crowd, good music.  My husband had seen him a few months before and said “you really got to see this guy”. John was just a young 19-year old, but ever and always wise beyond his age–the proof in his soulful lyrics you would swear were being channeled from a more aged, experienced man, sometimes heartbroken, sometimes in love, sometimes effusive over the birth of a child.

For those few out there that may not be familiar with Mr. Fullbright’s work or life, from the perspective of not another musician, but rather as a fan and for the love of his music- I introduce you to himself, Mr. John Fullbright:

THW: Take us back to the beginning and your earliest introduction to music and the piano.  Did your mom ‘encourage’ you to take lessons and did you grow up in a household with music, i.e. are your parents, grandparents or siblings musical?

JF: Nobody in my family played music, except my mom could play a few songs by memory.  I remember she could play Sunrise, Sunset on the piano.  I thought that was just the saddest song, even at a really young age.  I remember the sadness kind of hitting me in the gut and seeing the piano not just as the big wooden box that made wonderfully awful noises.  I think that’s when I began to really sit and try to find those ‘sad’ chords and ‘happy’ chords and any interesting accidents in between.  Not that I knew what they were, but you figure out that three notes make a kind of emotion.  I think we forget sometimes the depth of emotion a little kid has, and how they perceive the world in such a stronger way.  If I listened to Sunrise, Sunset today, it wouldn’t be the same song to me.  Kids feel things differently and search for outlets.  The piano was my outlet at a very early age–at 5 or 6.  Around that time, my mom asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons.  Looking back, I find this a similar question as asking a 6-year old girl whether she wants to join a convent and dress up in fun clothes.  I said, ‘sure’, and that turned out to be a 12-year contract I couldn’t get out of.  I loved my teacher, though, even though we fought pretty hard the first six or so years.

THW: Did you play other instruments besides the piano as a child or was your extensive diverseness developed in later years?  What is your favorite instrument if you HAD to choose one?

JF: I always thought the guitar was a ridiculous idea until I was about 12.  I thought, ‘why go learn that little thing when THIS thing’s got a whole ocean of notes’?  Then again, you can’t carry a piano around, and all of a sudden girls started looking different and smelling nice.  It was around that time I figured I needed a leg up, so I asked my mom if she would string her old closet guitar for me.  She said she would on the terms that I got my grades up.  I got them up, she got it strung, and that’s probably as good as I ever did in school since then.  I still think the guitar is second to the piano, but it has certainly helped me along.  Apologies to all guitar players.

THW: Tell me about the first time you performed in front of an audience.

JF: Probably a piano recital.  I remember playing some sort of Easter song with the word ‘hop’ in the title and the music ‘hopped’ along in a nice simple way.  I would then have to play those recitals once a year for the next 11 years.  I stayed just as nervous about them throughout the years as the first time I played one.

THW: At the risk of sounding cliché, who were and are your biggest influences?

JF: It probably is cliché, but it’s a pretty important question.  And, at the risk of my sounding cliché, I would have to say Dylan.  Mom had a pretty extensive record collection of middle-of-the-road pop stuff.  I remember really latching on to that Dylan’s Greatest Hits with his blue curly-headed silhouette on the cover.  That, and a Bobby Bare album of Shel Silverstein songs called Lullabys, Legends and Lies.  Between that album and most of Shel’s children’s books, I had a real appreciation for his tidy meter and bittersweet characters.  Those are stories anybody can latch on to, young or old.

But I have to say Townes [Van Zandt] was probably the one that lit the fuse.  There were a couple of his songs on a mix tape somebody made for somebody else that happened to be in my car for whatever reason.  The first real song I remember hearing was probably “Dead Flowers” (a Rolling Stones cover, little did I know), then “At My Window”, a wonderful song that’s more of a long sigh at the end of the day.  But the most important one was probably “St. John The Gambler”.  That was the first song I heard that gave a beginning, a middle, and an end that brought you back to the beginning.  I understand now that that’s a pretty common writing tool, but at that moment, I realized there was so much more going on in his writing than I gave it credit for.  After searching backward through the songs I’d already heard, I realized I was almost hearing different songs.  It takes a while to train your ear to find it all, but that was my devotion.  Even now I can listen to a Townes song I’ve heard a hundred times and some new metaphor or literary trick will pop out at me.  That’s when I decided I wanted to get serious about this songwriting thing—when I was shown it was something to get serious about.

THW: I know you’ve been performing out of the country some over the last couple of years.  Which one is your favorite, and do you have to modify your repertoire in any way?

JF: Well, I’ve really only been to Canada and Holland.  Holland is great — they really love music over there.  They’re a lot more subtle about showing you they like something, though.  I found out later that if you see somebody tapping their foot to what you’re doing, then you’re doing a pretty good job.  They really listen and try to figure out what you’re trying to say.  Sometimes I think it might be easier to pass out lyrics before a show, but I think the point gets across.

THW: Do you prefer playing to a large audience or a small, intimate crowd?

JF: A large, intimate audience.  {grin}

THW: There’s been quite a change in the music industry lately, i.e. self-managing, promoting, producing, etc.  What are your thoughts on the changing industry and how do you handle it?

JF: From what I understand, this is really not a great time to try to do any of this, especially as a song writer.  Singing my own songs helps, but gone are the days of the guy that can quietly write a million dollar hit for Mr. Sinatra.  You’ve got to get out there, you’ve got to stay out there, and you’ve got to sing.  All the old ways have toppled and record companies are becoming a thing of the past (I’m told).  Honestly, I know just enough about the business aspect of it to give me a headache.  I’m just trying to write good songs.

THW: I don’t think you’re really a ‘label’ guy, but how would you describe your genre?

JF: John Fullbright music.

THW: What is your favorite original song and why? and your favorite cover?

JF: My favorite original is usually the latest song I’ve written.

There are so many different songs from others that mean so many different things to me…..that’s a hard one to answer.  It’s easier to compare it to food. Some people like chicken soup when they’re sick, some people like steak on Sundays.  Nobody wants to eat the same thing every day.  Luckily, I’ve got a 5-star restaurant in my pile of records.  Today, I like Randy Newman.

THW: So you have a new cd coming out soon…..when? Where did you record and was there any specific inspiration for your new work?

JF: The new cd should be out (hopefully) sometime in April.  It was funny to me because I walked into 115 Recording in Norman to make a couple of demos with a band of guys I like.  Several hours later, I walked out with half of a really energetic, mostly live and completed album.  You never know what will happen when you walk into a situation like that.  I just surround myself with great musicians that I trust (Terry “Buffalo” Ware, Giovanni Carnuccio III [I love saying his name], Wes Sharon) and out came the start of a really great record.  The album will be a mix of new songs and a few old songs that never really got the “band treatment” they deserved.  Still, a few live solo songs, though.  I hope you like it.

THW: I’m pretty sure I will.

This was my first attempt to interview a person on a professional level and without hesitation I knew who to request to be my subject.  I consider John Fullbright an approachable virtuoso who has on more than one occasion humored me by graciously agreeing to perform a song I wrote; allowing me to share a piano bench with him ‘til 5:00 am; and generously submitting to my requests for a favorite song whenever we see him.  And he can write a song at a stoplight, literally.   Thanks, John.

Interview: (noun) a conference, usually with someone important.and he is.  Go see him first chance, then you’ll get it.

 

Johnfullbrightmusic.com

 

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