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All is ’bright

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Singer-songwriter John Fullbright shares more in common with folk legend Woody Guthrie than their quaint hometown of Okemah. There’s a certain air of Oklahoma soul to everything they are and represent, whether voice, songs or presence. There’s a weight and understanding of not only life of an Oklahoman, but a human being.

Fullbright didn’t set out to become the next Guthrie, but he’s come closer than most. It feels akin to fate.

“I don’t remember having any other choice,” said Fullbright, all of 23 years. “I tried college for a while, but they weren’t teaching me anything I wanted to know. Songwriting was just a lot more interesting to me. It’s kind of the contract you sign when you learn three chords on the guitar, that you are going to spend most of your time writing songs and riding on the freeway. It’s a lifestyle you learn to love.”

Growing
up in the same town as Guthrie did, he wasn’t hit over the head with
that fact. Rather, his familiarity — and eventual appreciation and awe —
came through other channels.

“I
had to find out about Woody like everyone else, through the back door:
Bob Dylan,” Fullbright said. “I found that there wouldn’t be a Townes
Van Zandt if there wasn’t Woody Guthrie, and he’s the reason why I
started writing songs. I look at it more through that lens, a beginning
of a long line of literary songwriters that I’ve latched onto.”

Fullbright’s love for music was kindled at a young age; around 5, he picked up the piano and the art took hold.

“The other kids would be
outside playing baseball, and I’d be in there trying to play ‘Boogie
Woogie’ four hours a day,” he said, “I remember playing recitals every
spring at church for years, and it terrified me. It definitely didn’t
make me want to make me go do it for a living, but it did give me some
tools on how to force yourself to get in front of people and play. To
this day, I still get pretty nervous, but it’s like storming Normandy.”

Timeless appeal
In
his late teens, Fullbright began approaching music and songwriting more
wholeheartedly. He caught the ears of The Blue Door owner Greg Johnson,
who — charmed by the raw talent, growling voice and powerful presence —
took the youth under his wing, eventually showcasing him at the venue.
“The Blue Door was built on songs and songs alone,” Fullbright said.
“There’s a particular care put into putting people up on that stage, and
I was so proud the first time I went up there. When you walk into The
Blue Door, the people are there to listen to what you have to say, and
if you don’t have anything to say, it’s very obvious.”

Luckily, he took to the crowd, which took to him. One such spectator was former state Sen. Andrew Rice.

“I
am by no means an expert about music, but like anyone, I can spot
talent when I encounter it,” Rice said. “When you see and hear him play
live, everyone and everything just stops and takes it in. That is the
power of good art, when it takes a hold of you, rather than letting you
be discriminating about it.”

An
old soul in terms of musical sensibilities, Fullbright impressed not
only crowds at regular Blue Door gigs, but the musicians he opened for,
like songwriters Jimmy Webb and James McMurtry, all astounded by the
quality of his songs, especially considering his tender age.

“You
feel like you’re doing it right, that you’re doing your job correctly,”
Fullbright said. “It’s a job, but it’s also an apprenticeship, and when
you can stand on the same level as your teachers, it’s a pretty great
feeling.”

The timeless, authentic appeal seems to have charmed
listeners the most. It’s steeped in Oklahoma culture, and the humble,
modest and sometimes painfully heartfelt tunes are crafted without the
slightest concern of modern novelties and trends.

“I am so happy and proud
that he has chosen to root himself in the very rich tradition of Okie
Red Dirt music, and the populist threads that run though it, all the way
back to Woody Guthrie,” Rice said. “That choice is not necessarily the
most commercial or easiest path one can take these days, with the music
business the way it is, which is why I respect John even more. That is
not to say I think John will have a struggle making it — quite the
opposite.”

Ground-ed
Fullbright takes his first big step toward “making it” with From the Ground Up, his
debut studio album that sees official release Tuesday, celebrated with
Thursday and Friday’s two-night stand at The Blue Door. The disc was
record ed at Norman’s 115 Studios, owned by co-producer Wes Sharon.

“We
threw a hell of a lot of ideas into the pot,” Fullbright said. “We got
to a point where we were bouncing ideas off each other, and they all
seemed to work. I’m sure it’s not always like that, but I’m definitely
grateful that it was this time.”

A successful Kickstarter campaign netted him $15,000 to record and promote the album, with enough left to press From the Ground Up on vinyl.

“Vinyl,
it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “Some of my first connections with music
were through my mom’s record collection, so it holds a special place in
my heart. I don’t expect to make money selling vinyl records, but I’ve
always wanted — at least once in my life — to have my songs played on a
turntable.”

The LP
already has garnered national media coverage and looks to make quite a
splash. Regardless, Fullbright seems to be content, more concerned with
connecting with those who do listen above all else.

“I
have no idea what will happen with this album. I’m curious to see what
will. If it does great, I’ll be thrilled. If it doesn’t, it won’t make
me love these songs any less,” he said. “It’s a lot like me getting into
this business in the first place:

There wasn’t a lot of setting goals — it was just a sense of wonder and sense of what I could get away with.”

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