Category: Americana

John Fullbright: Folk-rock straight outta Okemah

John Fullbright lives a few miles outside of Okemah, Okla., Woody Guthrie's birthplace
This post has been updated. See details at bottom.

NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s hard to think of any city on the face of the planet that casts a larger shadow over the career of an aspiring folk-rooted singer-songwriter than Okemah, Okla., the town where 24-year-old musician John Fullbright was born and raised, and which -- 100 years ago come July 14 -- was the birthplace of one Woody Guthrie.

“When I get asked what it’s like to grow up in Woody’s hometown, I say it’s kind of like living next door to a neighbor you don’t know anything about,” Fullbright said in his folksy eastern Oklahoma drawl. “I’m just now starting to figure him out. I’m a bigger fan of his writing than his music. I like his books and the stuff he wrote for the paper. But it’s kinda hard to listen to him sing.”

On a recent spring day, he’d accepted the invitation of University of Oklahoma English professor Susan Kates to talk about how his Oklahoma roots figure into his songwriting. Kates said she loved the literary quality of his music. Between questions from students, Fullbright served up a handful of his songs, many of them from his preternaturally self-assured debut studio album, “From the Ground Up,” due May 8.

He’s supporting the album with a tour of about two dozen shows, including a May 10 stop at the Hotel Café in Hollywood, where he shares the bill with Gurf Morlix, and a mid-July appearance back home for the annual Woodyfest salute to Okemah’s favorite son, which runs July 11-14 this year. In March, he also played several showcases at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.

Fullbright doesn’t share much stylistically with Guthrie outside of their deep interest in telling stories that shed light on the human condition. Musically, he incorporates folk blues, gospel and Americana rock elements.

One of the songs he shared in Kates’ class was “Satan and St. Paul,” a stylish and witty, almost essay-like exploration of romantic regret:

Don’t tell me that you love me

I got nothing left in turn

Except this empty bag of promises

And second degree burns

On the tips of my fingers

From touching certain fruit

That I never should have touched in the first place

The official video can be seen here:

It’s among several on the album with evocative scriptural references, creating the impression that this native of the Bible Belt is deeply steeped in religion.

Not so much, as it turns out.

“My mom was pretty biblical, that’s kinda how I was raised, but for me it’s more of a tool in writing. It’s a very strong way to get a point across.” His mother also strongly encouraged, to put it mildly, his piano studies, which surface on the album perhaps most impressively on “Fat Man,” a Randy Newman-esque song about a surrealistic dream.

“When I was about 9, my mom asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons and I said, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t realize I was signing a 12-year-contract I couldn’t get out of,” he said. “I played the piano a lot, but didn’t play what they wanted me to play. I just wanted to play boogie-woogie. It turned into therapy: boogie-woogie therapy. I’d play the same chord progression for two hours, just trying to figure out how to play the blues.”

The forces that shaped him tend to include great '60s and '70s singer-songwriters such as Newman, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and fellow Oklahoman Jimmy Webb, who said recently, “I have no doubt that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.” His voice at times creates the impression of a younger sibling of another Oklahoma musician, Leon Russell.

“I’m a huge Leon fan,” he said, “The bottom line is we have the same goofy voice. It’s uncanny even to me. I’ll hear myself on tape and say, ‘Jesus, I sound just like Leon.’ I don’t mean for it to sound that way. My grandpa was his stepdad’s cousin. I say it, and I can’t actually do the math.”

Fullbright’s bold enough to open his album with “Gawd Above,” a song in which he takes the perspective of the Supreme Being. He has referred to it as “Sympathy for the Creator”:

Six long days, Seventh day He rested

Said, “Here’s one sure way humans can be bested

Give 'em wine and song, fire and lust

When it all goes wrong, I’m the man to trust.”

Such songs have also earned Fullbright the backing of Greg Johnson, owner of Oklahoma City’s venerable folk club the Blue Door. Johnson not only has booked Fullbright on countless shows to help build a following, but he’s also acting as his manager, the first act he’s ever been so inspired to take on.

“I love good songwriting,” Johnson said on a night that Arlo Guthrie played the Blue Door. “I get kind of tired of so many of the Americana acts that are getting into the jam-band thing. That’s fun for a while, but where are the songs? John’s songs remind me of people like Kris Kristofferson and John Prine -- just really great songwriters.”

Fullbright says the Blue Door has become “my home away from home. … It’s kind of like a little church of songs.”

Early on, he said, his approach to songwriting “was all inspiration. If you didn’t get it the first time, then it’s lost. Any more, it’s flipping around: It’s inspiration, when it comes, and then really trying to work it out. I don’t give up on songs anymore, really. Even if no one will ever hear them, they have to be at least almost done. I figure that if you can see it through to the end, even if you don’t like it, there’ll be a big chunk you’ll be able to use in something else down the line.”

That’s another thing Fullbright’s just beginning to have in common with Woody Guthrie.

“Woody was a fountain of creativity -- all the output of songs and articles and books," he said. "And he cared about people. Those are two important things about him. I kind of strive to be more like him in those areas.”

And the third would be getting his music known beyond the borders of Okemah.

“It’s comforting to know that somebody else did it -- came from Okemah and went out and became successful being a songwriter,” he said. “If times get tough and the house gets dark, that’s something I can remember.”

Update at 8:43 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said Fullbright is 23. He turned 24 on Monday.


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Following Woody Guthrie's footsteps from Oklahoma to Texas to California

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: John Fullbright on the porch of his house outside of Okemah, Okla. Credit: Vicki Farmer.

The Mavericks to reunite for 2012 Stagecoach Festival

Raul Malo The Mavericks

Boundary-bending alt-country band the Mavericks will reunite for the 2012 Stagecoach Festival in Indio. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Raul Malo will reconvene with the group’s original bassist Robert Reynolds and drummer Paul Deakin for the show, although a date has not been set.

The Mavericks charted more than a dozen hits on the country charts in the 1990s, among them “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” “What a Crying Shame,” "There Goes My Heart” and “Dance the Night Away.” Although the group’s music was generally well-regarded by critics, it often confounded country radio programmers by weaving country, rock, vintage pop, Latin and other strains into the mix.

“Stagecoach is obviously the perfect way to start a tour, for the band to be reintroduced to us as well as for us to refamiliarize ourselves with the fans,” Malo said in a statement released Thursday. “It’s one of the great music festivals of the world. This time out, we’ll get to do things right and finish what we started on our own terms — not subject to the powers that be.”

The group disbanded at the dawn of the new millennium and Malo launched his solo career.

“I’ve always thought of The Mavericks as one of those bands that had an inexplicable chemistry that resulted in a kind of magic on stage,” Deakin said in the same statement. “Possibly the relentless pursuit of fun helped the mojo along.... I can't wait to get back on this horse again.”


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Raul Malo: It all goes back to the voice

— Randy Lewis

Photo of Raul Malo in 2009. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times.

Jim Ward talks new album, the bar biz and reviving Sparta

Jim Ward

It might surprise some to know that Jim Ward, founding member of roaring post-hardcore outfits At the Drive-In, Sparta and Sleepercar, has spent the last few years learning to turn the volume knob down on his amp. In fact, he rarely uses it in the bulk of his mostly acoustic solo debut, “Quiet In the Valley, On the Shores, the End Begins.”

Released on Aug. 2 via his self-started label Tembloroso, the El Paso, Texas, native has sharpened his take on acoustic campfire songs over the course of five years' worth of writing, rehearsing and recording. This project, a double-disc set, features works from that period, much of it cataloged in three previously released EPs -- 2007's "Quiet," 2009's "In The Valley, On the Shores" and 2009's "The End Begins." The package includes a six-song EP that includes electric versions of selected tracks.

Since the album’s release, Ward has embarked on a month-long U.S. tour, stopping Sunday at the Satellite in L.A. Pop & Hiss shared a recent phone conversation with Ward to discuss the new material as well as his second job as a bar owner in El Paso. Oh, there's also the news that he’ll be hitting the road and recording new music with Sparta in the fall.

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Cigar box guitar revolution: 'It's like folk music turned inside out'

Purgatory Hill l2010-Peter Lee 
A quarter-century ago, when cigar-box guitar enthusiast Pat MacDonald was half of the Austin, Texas, alternative pop-rock duo Timbuk3, the singer, songwriter and instrumentalist’s moment in the pop spotlight came with the group’s breezy, wisecracking hit single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”

Now relocated to Wisconsin and rendering his name now as pat mAcdonald, the musician’s recent past, present and foreseeable musical future no longer revolves around a pair of Ray Bans, but around his beloved Lowebow cigar box guitar.

For mAcdonald and many others in the growing community of cigar box guitar players, makers and  listeners -- including the high-profile likes of Johnny Depp, Steve Miller, Jack White, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme -- this throwback to primal instruments akin to those once played by blues musicians in poor rural communities offers an irresistible sense of liberation. 

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The Majestic Silver Strings: A fresh spin on old country featuring Buddy Miller, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz

Majestic Silver Strings cover image

Two of the more idiosyncratic facets of the guitarist summit meeting of Buddy Miller, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz on “Buddy Miller’s The Majestic Silver Strings” album center on Ribot, the instrumentalist extraordinaire who has worked closely with Tom Waits for years, as well as Elvis Costello, T Bone Burnett and countless other musical tastemakers.

The two songs fall back-to-back on the album, which was released Tuesday: Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” and the old western classic “Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie,” alternately known as “The Dying Cowboy’s  Lament.”

Ribot came to Miller’s song while he was in the band Crackers in New York with Marc Anthony Thompson.  As performed by the composer, "Dang Me" was a jaunty ditty that reached the Top 10 of the pop chart in 1964. But on the album, Thompson makes a guest appearance and sings it as an ominous confession from a desperate man who’s almost literally at the end of his rope.

“I really started working professionally (sort of) as a musician in Maine in the late ‘70s, and having some country music in the set was de rigueur: We used to launch into ‘Folsom Prison’ or ‘Truck Driving Man’ whenever drunken lobster fishermen started to beat each other up--it was said to be therapeutic,” Ribot said in an e-mail exchange for a roundtable discussion with all four members of the Majestic Silver Strings that will be coming in Calendar on Tuesday.

“The funny thing is that at the time, I had never actually seen a country band perform--and I was only dimly aware of what a pedal steel did, so I tried to teach myself pedal-steel licks on guitar, with some interesting results ,” he said. “Later on I had a band in NYC with Marc Anthony Thompson (aka The Chocolate Genius) called Crackers in which we played harmelodic versions of country favorites and original compositions. I think Calvin Weston played drums with us on a couple of gigs.

“We never made a record, but his amazing version of Roger Miller’s ‘Dang Me’ (dang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me) is featured on the Majestic Silver Strings CD.”

It guides Miller’s lighthearted song into decidedly darker territory, much as Ribot’s arrangement of “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” does for a song rendered in so many old cowboy movies as a happy sing-along under a starry sky next to a blazing camp fire. As Ribot and his cohorts recast it, it becomes a haunting minor-key death-bed wish.

“Accidents--both happy and unhappy--seem to be part of my experience,” Ribot noted. “In the case of ‘The Dying Cowboy,’ producer, bass player and friend J.D. Foster knew of my interest in archival Americana, and lent me this copy of a 1930s printing of a book of ‘Cowboy Songs’.  I liked the lyrics to ‘Dying Cowboy’: kind of punk, you know? In fact, I’d heard the song before, so I read it through.

“I was surprised at the dirgy, depressing very non-cowboy chords of this version/arrangement,” he said. “Pretty soon I figured out that I was misreading it (chalk up another one for Harold Bloom).  In contemporary [musical] notation, a minus sign means minor chord; in the 30’s, it meant dominant 7th, a completely different vibe. But I liked it so much that I kept it minor, more or less threw out the original melody (ah, it’s good to be an American!)  and turned it into a kind of free-jazz cowboy raga.

“This was in 2003, and a few months later, I was on tour solo in Europe at exactly the week that the second Iraq war began,” Ribot recalled. “There were big protests against the war in almost every town I played. I don’t think most people here were quite aware of how [angry] most non-Americans were at the time.  Although I was of a similar opinion as most of the protesters, I didn’t feel comfortable turning a concert into a political harangue.  That old song about a young man dying on the desert said all I needed to say: ‘O bury me not, on the lone prairie.’”

The Majestic Silver Strings, which also includes bassist Dennis Crouch and percussionst Jay Bellerose, will make its only scheduled live appearance of 2011 on March 10 at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

--Randy Lewis



The Civil Wars: Marching into the unknown


When John Paul White and Joy Williams perform one of the gentle, yearning songs they’ve recorded as the Civil Wars, they lean in toward each other, as if to get the weave of their harmonies just right. Williams might lift a hand to push back a strand of White’s shoulder-length hair. Their musical connection is seriously joyful; it carries them out of themselves and into a space that glows.

White and Williams are a couple onstage only; in conversation, they’re more like teasing siblings than sweethearts, giving each other witty little verbal pinches as they discuss their mounting success. "Barton Hollow," the duo’s debut album on its own Sensibility Music label, has topped the iTunes charts for the last three weeks, and its physical release debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard Top 200.

An appearance on  "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and a coveted closing-montage spot on an episode of  "Grey’s Anatomy" have helped this unknown act vault to national attention. Yet no one, least of all the sparkly, serious Williams and the graceful, amiable White, expected the Civil Wars to start out this strong.

Continue reading »

Buddy Miller gathers guitar greats for Majestic Silver Strings album, Grammy Museum show

Buddy Miller-Majestic Silver Strings 
Americana songwriter, singer, guitarist and producer Buddy Miller’s latest project, the Majestic Silver Strings, surfaces March 1 in a new album named for the stellar collection of players who join him: Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.

In conjunction with the album’s release, the quartet of esteemed guitarists will make what’s billed as their only concert appearance together this year at a performance and question-answer session the following week at the downtown L.A. Grammy Museum.

At the March 10 session, they plan to discuss the album’s reinterpretations of country and folk music standards including George Jones' first hit, “Why Baby Why,” Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call,” Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” and the cowboy classic “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” along with several originals. Among the guest vocalists on the album are Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, Chocolate Genius Inc. and Miller’s wife, singer-songwriter Julie Miller.

For the Grammy Museum show, Buddy Miller, who produced Robert Plant's latest album, "Band of Joy," Ribot, Frisell and Leisz will be backed by bassist Dennis Crouch and percussionist Jay Bellerose, who also play on the album. Tickets go on sale Friday at Ticketmaster or through the museum’s box office.

The album release will include a DVD with highlights of the only other performance by the Majestic Silver Strings, last year in Nashville.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of the Majestic Silver Strings, from left: Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz and Marc Ribot. Credit: Michael Wilson.


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