Back in February 2009, John Fullbright decided he needed a calling card. The young singer/songwriter was going to his first big industry convention, the Folk Alliance in Memphis, so the night before he left, he played a concert called "Memphis or Bust," which was recorded. Then he burned a bunch of CD copies to hand out and took off for Memphis.
Usually, such homemade CDs wind up ignored, and for good reason. Fullbright's live recording, however, is the rare exception. "Live at the Blue Door" (Blue Door Records) is indeed commercially available, and you really should track it down. Despite the modest circumstances of its making and Fullbright's young age (21 at the time), it's an extraordinary collection of surpassing depth and maturity.
It's just voice, guitar, the occasional harmonica and a whole bunch of words, each and every last one perfectly measured and placed. Fullbright still lives in his hometown of Okemah, Okla., and his amiably breezy drawl recalls that town's most famous export: Woody Guthrie, the iconic folksinger. You could imagine Guthrie giving his ragamuffin swagger to something like Fullbright's plaintive ode to heartbreak, "Unlocked Doors":
All the scores of unlocked doors I lost myself in front of
Well, it seems I'm always rescued in the end
And if I'm found in front of yours
With a broken heart and nothing more
Would you open up that door and let me in?
Fullbright wrote many of the 13 originals on "Live at the Blue Door" while still a teenager. Ask him how someone so young could evoke a lived-in-wisdom most people don't reach until decades later, and he's as mystified as anyone.
"I don't really know," Fullbright says by phone from Okemah. "As to how or why, my only answer would be that I never had that many friends. I was living here in Okemah, and there were no other like-minded people I could talk to who were writing songs, especially my age. So I'd just kinda ... disappear into my own head. Sit for weeks on end, think about things and write. I'm pretty shy and private, too, which probably has something to do with it."
The Guthrie connection
Well, maybe. Or maybe he really is just that good. It also doesn't hurt to have Guthrie for a local-hero role model (even though, as Fullbright notes, Guthrie "was just a dirty red Communist" to most modern-day residents of deeply conservative Oklahoma). Fullbright's initial firsthand exposure to the Guthrie legacy came when he attended WoodyFest, the annual folk festival that happens in Okemah around Guthrie's July 14 birthday.
"At first, I didn't care about Woody Guthrie so much as I was enthralled with the fact that musicians were coming to my town," Fullbright says. "So I mostly hung out at the WoodyFest campground. I didn't even see any of the 'real' shows. And the more I hung out, the more Woody Guthrie I heard. If Woody himself were still around, he wouldn't be hanging out at the main stage, either. He'd be out in the campgrounds, too. That's pretty much where I learned how to play."
From there, Fullbright got serious about writing songs, amassing the 13 originals on "Live at the Blue Door." The album also has one cover, the Leonard Cohen standard "Hallelujah," which is perilously close to becoming a song that need not ever be covered again. But don't write it off until you have heard Fullbright's raspy, soulful rendition, which gives it more life than you might have thought possible.
"That's probably still my favorite song I've ever heard," Fullbright says. "You forget it's something an actual person sat down and wrote, you know? Like it's always been there. But the funny thing was that right after I recorded that, it seemed like every single person you saw on TV was singing it. Then I read an interview where Leonard Cohen was calling out other people: 'Give it a rest.' So of course it's the last song on my record."
Album on the way
Fullbright admits he writes very slowly, although he's trying to pick up the pace because, he says, "I'm coming to the realization that my job is to write songs." Still, he'll reprise some of the "Live at the Blue Door" on his first proper album, a full-band studio effort that will come out either late this year or early next.
Meantime, he's on the road as opening act for Sam Baker and Natalia Zukerman, playing Raleigh's Berkeley Cafe on Sunday night. And the creative process goes on, too. The search for songs never ends - except maybe those times when songs find him.
"More times than not, I'll start writing a song without meaning to," he says. "I'll see something, come up with some phrase and laugh about it: 'Wouldn't it be ridiculous to write a whole song about that silly thing?' So 'Blameless,' for example, was gonna be a country parody: 'Jesus, what do we say when they leave us? Why don't they ever believe us? Do they not know what they do?' I thought that was hilarious. But when I got done with the whole thing, it turned into this really sentimental song, and the jokes were not jokes anymore. I think it's fascinating when that happens."