John Fullbright hails from a very small town called Beardon, Okla., but when people ask, he tells them he’s from nearby Okemah.
“It’s just easier,” he says. “People are a lot more likely to know where Okemah is than where Beardon is.”
He’s not trying to play off the Woody Guthrie connection, especially since he admits he wasn’t too familiar with the famed Okie for most of his life.
“I was aware of the name, but I didn’t really know who he was,” he admits. “I found out little by little, and I’m certainly aware of him now.”
Fullbright is putting Beardon on the map, though. In 2012, he received a Grammy nomination for his studio debut, From the Ground Up, a rowdy collection of rough-hewn country-folk songs about God, guns, love and death. His follow-up — simply and un-Google-ably titled Songs — is more stripped-down and much more melancholy, often featuring just Fullbright singing and playing piano or guitar.
While driving his truck through the backwoods near his home, he spoke to CMT Edge about new songs that are about other songs and old songs that sound like new songs.
CMT Edge: There seem to be several songs on the new album about songwriting.
Fullbright: That was kind of a joke because I’ve complained about songs that are about other songs. There’s a real trend going on, especially in country music, of singing about songs that you like or that you grew up with. “Write a Song” was a joke that ended up being sentimental. Shel Silverstein would do that. John Hartford would that, as well. They would just toy around with the idea of the song and sing about the song that they were singing. And it worked. It’s a riddle.
It certainly seems to underscore the sense of craft. It implies that songwriting is not something that comes naturally but something you have to work at.
For sure. You put a lot of hours into it, even just listening to everybody else and trying to figure out how they do what they do and how you could probably do something similar. That’s work in itself. It’s a 24-hour job, but it’s a job we do because we don’t actually want to get a real job.
I’ve got a one-track mind. If I’m on the road, then all I can think about is being on the road. But when I’m home, I have the luxury of being bored out of my mind. There’s nothing to do out here in the woods. I find if I can force myself into a position where I’m just bored to tears, then I’m a lot more likely to actually sit down and write something that’s worth anything.
That’s why I’m constantly bitching and moaning about how I need to go home even though there’s nothing there. That’s where the songs are waiting.
“High Road” appeared on your first release, Live at the Blue Door, back in 2009. Why did you dust if off after so many years?
A guy in Europe had sent me a link to a video of him singing that song. He was just a fan, and it was obvious English wasn’t his first language. But he did a great job with it. I’d always thought the song wasn’t very good, but I played it on piano at shows and got a big reaction from people, so I figured maybe I needed to give it a second chance. I should probably find that guy in Europe and write him a thank-you note.
What kind of pressure did you feel while you were making this album, especially after the success of From the Ground Up?
If I said there was no pressure, I would be a liar. But I discovered the pressure was mostly within myself. I don’t have a team of people around me begging me to write a great song or anything like that. Once I figured out that most of that pressure was internal, I could make it go away because it’s not actually real. To make this record, to make a really stripped-down record, I had to swallow a lot of that.
Was that sparer musical palette something you had in mind when you were writing these songs?
It was similar to From the Ground Up. We went into the studio with no expectations. I had a batch of songs. I didn’t know which ones I was going to use. I didn’t know what order they were going to be in. I didn’t know what they were going to sound like. So we tried a lot of stuff out.
By the middle of the recording session, we realized the album really needed to be stripped-down. We needed to focus on the part that we thought mattered the most — and that wasn’t the production. It was the quality of the performance and quality of the craft. It was hard. After the last record, you feel like you should make a big, loud statement. But a whisper is louder than a scream in a recording studio.
How different were these sessions than those from From the Ground Up?
It was actually not different. I had the same producer and engineer, Wes Sharon. We recorded in the same small town, using the same microphones, even. Same room. A lot of it was recorded live, just like the last record, without a lot of stopping and starting over.
But I’m not the same person I was when I went into the studio two or three years ago. I’ve gone a million miles since then. My voice has changed a little bit. My performances have gotten a little better. I’m certainly a better harmonica player than I’ve ever been.
With your voice changing, did you have to rethink how you approached certain songs?
Absolutely. I have a tendency to write out of my range. It creates a certain sound when someone is right at the breaking point. It’s the most rock ‘n’ roll your voice can get. But after playing night after night for two years straight, that’s not very sustainable. So I’m trying to maximize the effect and minimize the vocal damage that I do to myself every night.