Folk singer-songwriter John Fullbright considered it his “little kid therapy” when he first started making music. “I’d sit at a piano, and if I was sad I’d play minor chords, if I knew any, and if I was happy I would play upbeat songs,” Fullbright said. He got his start early, taking up piano at the age of 5 and later learning guitar. He’s 24 now and touring on the release of his debut studio album From the Ground Up, which came out earlier this month, but he feels that not much has essentially changed since those early compositions.
“I’ve kind of had to re-realize that that’s really all it is, it’s still the same feeling and the same reaction to an instrument I have as an adult,” Fullbright said. “If I’m sad, I play minor chords and if I’m happy, I play upbeat songs, and hopefully when other people listen to those songs, they kind of feel the same way, or react similarly.”
The Oklahoma native, who grew up in a town just outside of Okemah, has been the subject of much critical praise for his songwriting, which often comes in tow with talk of the Okemah-born folk legend Woody Guthrie.
As he describes it, Fullbright’s songwriting is part truth-telling and part craft – it’s important to be sincere in what you write, but important, too, to learn how to do the job well.
“If you hear a song, it will hit you a certain way. You’ll feel it in your gut and your head at the same time. And it’s a very specific feeling, and we’ve all felt it. If you have a soul, you’ve felt this reaction to a song,” Fullbright said. “And as a songwriter, it’s my job, if I hear that from a song, my initial reaction is OK, how did they do that?”
Some of the songs on From the Ground Up will be familiar to longtime fans, as they were previously recorded on his solo live album, Live at the Blue Door, released in 2009. One such track, “Jericho,” is transformed on the new release from the simple voice-and-acoustic-guitar track of the live record to a more fully produced song with several instruments and stacked vocals bolstering the chorus which was originally delivered with only a gruff wail by the singer.
“I’d already recorded them, and I’ve been playing them for years, but they’ve never gotten the studio treatment that they deserved,” Fullbright said. “They just had to be recorded with a band.”
Some tracks, like “Gawd Above” and “Daydreamer,” were newly released on From the Ground Up, written while Fullbright and his band were in the studio. “Gawd Above” kicks off the album, a track in which the singer takes on the voice of God, rendered a bit comical and a bit dark. With a harmonica solo and organ backing, somewhere between blues rock and gothic gospel, the narrator asks “I made the heaven and earth, I made the stars above, is it too much to ask for a little love?”
From the Ground Up is a source of pride for the young musician, and his first chance to show listeners what he can do with his music in a studio setting, but the album also made important memories for Fullbright that go beyond the music and into his life. The organ that can be heard on the album had been sitting in a garage for four years before Fullbright borrowed it from a friend. It billowed with leaves when it was first played. Squirrels had gotten into it, Fullbright assumed, but it worked for what he needed it for. And the guitar solo that Ryan Engleman played to close out “Gawd Above,” Fullbright says it “could never happen again.”
“There’s just a handful of things that I truly cherish when it comes to the making of this record and the finished product,” Fullbright said.
Fullbright will play two shows in Northern Virginia this weekend, starting with a headlining show at Jammin’ Java Friday, then joining Ray Price and The Cherokee Cowboys the following night at The Birchmere.
While he’s been playing since he was a child, and performed at festivals as early as his high school days, it was some time after dropping out of college and joining a rock band, he recalled, that he knew his path wouldn’t take him to a suit-and-tie job, but would instead lead him through a life performing on the road. And he plans to keep at it, because he has a story to tell.
“I still have all those same emotions, and I still need to get it out,” Fullbright said. “And it’s not any different than it was. You don’t change. Emotions don’t change as you get older. The situations change. … I’m still alive, and I still feel, and I still have a need to express myself.”
• For more information about John Fullbright, visit johnfullbrightmusic.com.