A fan/friend’s road journal: John Fullbright opened for legendary tunesmith Jimmy Webb at The Blue Door, OKC. Friday, May 15, 2009.
by Danny Marroquin
You may not know the burgeoning songwriter John Fullbright, who’s currently planning his first 5 or 100 albums in the solitude of the East Oklahoma countryside. If you do, anything I write here is obsolete with what your ears have already told you. The best I can do is throw a few links, write some anecdotes and tell you about this really cool thing that happened at The Blue Door on a Friday in May.
I like my friend John because he doesn’t lie to me. I knew he wasn’t too keen on cramped party spaces in college towns, but he came to my birthday party anyway. There, I tried to wear some new black cowboy boots. He nodded admiringly and said, “ Nice boots. Now you’re going to learn like I did that you have to find some jeans with wide enough legs for them.” Once when driving back from Arkansas, I gave him some drippy story about Jackson Browne’s The Pretender album. John said, “Go get that essentials record. It’s two discs, a red one and yellow one. I want you to keep the red one, and then throw the second one out the window. It’s shit.”
Now, this isn’t some chummy attempt at a writer-as-musicianbuddy. I only want to demonstrate an important thing about songwriters: their candor. People go into dark rooms in large or small groups to hear somebody sing because they want something they won’t get in the 9 to 5 – what ordinary people won’t tell them to their face, what they once demanded or desired from the world when they were 12 – whether it’s Lou Reed talking dirty in Sister Ray, John Lennon wanting someone to “gimme some truth,” or Townes Van Zandt’s dangerous poetry that never bullshits us either: “breath I’ll take and breath I’ll give and pray the day’s not poison…” People go to see musicians because the musicians, like children, stay aware of how they feel. They haven’t learned to forget.
Devil’s got a tail six foot long
tug it three times for a country song
if you take a notion to sell your soul
get a little bit of that rock n roll
-John Fullbright, “Devil”
John in his lyric above has no illusions about the path he’s chosen. If you want to play rock and roll of redeemable currency you have to, as Townes Van Zandt once said, “blow off everything.” You have to break a girl’s heart or physically hurt yourself. In the search for beauty, you have to go it alone and trust your eyes, voice and instincts. You will be stuck in a spotlight on a stool in beery rooms every night just so people can wiggle into an honest enough mood to hear your carefully crafted words. The daily job of conjuring sung stories about life, love, and death will seem like a burden. Any decent kind of songwriter had to see the devil to learn more about those things. And once you respect that kind, then all the smiling, self-satisfied crooners start to look funny. Real music ain’t small talk.
Fullbright handles these themes quite adequately, and with closed eyes (don’t listen to Memphis, Johnny, keep ’em closed!). He tells us about life in “Movin’,” about love and faith in an unfaithful world in “Unlocked Doors,” and about death in “The High Road,” a song adapted from rural experience and the classic Irish weeper ballad, Banks of Loch Lomond.
Fullbright junkies replenish ourselves every Wednesday at Libby’s in Goldsby with John, Aron Holt, Gabriel Marshal and friends. Another Fullbright junkie is Greg Johnson, owner of the stalwart Blue Door. He pushed John into this show with Jimmy Webb, a man who left Elk City for Los Angeles and won a few Grammys with songs like MacArthur Park for Richard Harris and By the Time I Get to Phoenix for Glenn Campbell. Tom Waits lingered at his shows, sprawled atop a fender in the parking lot warbling, “Us Piano Players Got to Stick Together!” When John steps on stage in front of the bluest door, he tells a fresh story about picking up Jimmy Webb at the airport, staring at the back of his head, silently humming Wichita Lineman and getting sweaty palms. The older crowd laughs nostalgically and waits for this new thing.
John compels us to become historians, and I had to go chasing Webb songs a week before the show. John knows them all. At any given watering hole he’s liable to play one or several of 200 covers, from James McMurtry to a Leon Russell version of a Bob Dylan song to some old spiritual. But at The Blue Door, a place where songwriters go to be heard, John puts his own songs out there. That Friday he played a near flawless set with songs he wrote on drives to Goldsby in a Datsun without a radio (“You have plenty of time to write songs on that drive”).
The stand-out track was his newest, about the baby he envisions having someday with the girl he’ll learn the name of when she comes to him with the kid. It’s a wrenching song, full of years. It pictures the fading life of the father as the son picks his own ways – with harmonica work that whistles through the fields and expert Hank Williams-like repetition (“cold, cold, cold, bitter cold / warm, warm, warm little baby”). What some might call the cosmos is in it too:
To live is frightening / It’s as fast as lightning / You never see it till it’s gone/ Love stays secluded / Oft disputed / She flies in circles around the sun
You can find that yet-to-be-titled song here:
He deftly balances sadness and humor. The crowd laughed deep during “All the Time in the World” where John gives his Oklahoma geography lesson, “Central Oklahoma is my land, is my country / Eastern Oklahoma is a beautiful sight / Northern Oklahoma might as well be Kansas / Never go to Southern Oklahoma at night.” People feel good to discover a songwriter with pride in Oklahoma roots. Or, finally getting to the point of this website, with an Oklahoma Voice.
Jimmy Webb played the party line. We went to Phoenix and Galveston. It felt so smooth that Burt Bacharach might have been there too. The voice was fading but the words were there, and Webb’s tender piano tickling gave an Austin Powers vibe. The slow, delicate close to Wichita Lineman especially sticks in my memory. The little room knew all the Webb words.
Before his set he paid tribute to the young Fullbright, telling the crowd, “He’s actually 37.”
Afterwards Fullbright got a bunch of stuff signed and looked like the proverbial kid in the candy store. There may have been talk about getting more resources for Fullbright’s ascent, but we’ll see. It was another good night in a small, sturdy room with dozens of classic songwriters looking down from posters and paintings. It makes me want to relate a favorite Jack White lyric about writing songs for the satisfaction of it and nothing more, and playing them in rooms such as this:
Well you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think of
how you got started
sitting in your little room
There’s a good chance Fullbright’s rooms will get much bigger. And shit will get crazy. But we must remember the little rooms like Greg Johnson’s Blue Door, where the seeds are carefully planted.
More tracks and upcoming shows at John Fullbright’s Myspace page: http://www.myspace.com/johnrussellfullbright