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