It doesn’t take much to get John Fullbright talking about Oklahoma. Maybe it’s because the 26-year-old singer has just gotten home after a week of touring in Europe, but Fullbright, fresh off the release of his second album, Songs, is eager to sing the praises of his home state. “I could sit and brag about Oklahoma all day,” the singer tells Rolling Stone Country.
Fullbright, who grew up and still lives in Bearden, Oklahoma (population 133), credits much of his early success as a singer-songwriter to the state’s nurturing, low-stakes musical atmosphere. “It’s such a fertile place to try to be a songwriter, there’s no judgment and no ego,” Fullbright says of his home state’s current musical renaissance, which, in addition to Fullbright, has spawned a variety of promising young singer-songwriters like John Moreland, Parker Millsap, and Samantha Crain over the last few years. “There’s no music industry out here, so why wouldn’t you let someone jump on stage with a guitar if they wanted to? They’re not going to take your gig, because there’s no gig to take.”
After spending much of his adolescence studying the piano and playing shows in nearby Oklahoma City, Fullbright released his debut studio album, From The Ground Up, in the spring of 2012. Six months later, he was nominated for a Grammy.
Fullbright’s second record, Songs, is a daring change of pace for the singer-songwriter. After the Americana community praised From the Ground Up for its “rootsy, greasy, blue-collar sound,” Fullbright turned to the piano for an entirely different feel on Songs. His new album is a quiet collection of stately ballads and ruminative torch songs that dispels much of the rural troubadour mythology surrounding his debut.
Songs is a moving display of deeply personal songwriting that blends the country sophistication of Kris Kristofferson with the sardonic wit of Randy Newman and the literary storytelling of James McMurtry. The album opens with a self-conscious mission statement that finds Fullbright wondering if it’s possible to write a great song about feeling “Happy.” By the end of the record, the singer has answered his own question with “The Very First Time,” a touching declaration of contentment that finds Fullbright calm, in love, and “feeling all right.”
But Fullbright, who names such unlikely artists as Chet Baker and Leon Russell as two of his greatest influences as a vocalist, considers the most important improvement on Songs to be his increasing willingness to be up front in his songwriting. Talking about “The Very First Time,” Fullbright calls the song “a big leap forward for me in terms of unabashedly telling the truth, and the whole truth, not just part of it.”
A big part of telling his own truth on Songs was Fullbright’s return to the piano after he had downplayed his love of the instrument for years because it was “too personal.” When asked if he feels any pressure amongst country, folk, and Americana audiences to maintain his image as a solo acoustic guitar act, Fullbright admits “that is kind of a thing,” but he has little patience for such narrow expectations.
“Even when I’m playing the guitar, I’m thinking in piano terms, and I’ve always been like that,” he says. “When people start to put you in little boxes, all it does is show how shallow their ears really are. They need something to fulfill some sort of identity for themselves, and I don’t have time for that shit.”
Lucky for Fullbright, his new piano-based album has thus far been met with near universal acclaim, and many of his biggest fans haven’t even noticed the change. “The new album is different in a way,” says singer Ashley Monroe, who has been a huge fan of Fullbright’s ever since Blake Shelton raved about the singer to her after discovering him on A Prairie Home Companion a few years back. “But I get so lost in the songs that I don’t pay attention to anything other than what he’s saying and how he’s singing. I couldn’t say what instruments he’s playing or anything, I just know I feel it.”
Fullbright, who has described country music as his “therapy,” doesn’t like to reduce himself to a genre, but he is slowly becoming one of Nashville’s favorite secrets. Is Fullbright country? Monroe thinks so. “Anything that moves me that much is real country,” she says.
Likening him to songwriters like Guy Clark and Jason Isbell, Monroe says Fullbright’s music demands close and careful listening. “When I play John Fullbright records for people, I tell them to put their phones down and shut up, because you can’t miss a word. There are no throwaway lines.”
For the Oklahoma singer, such close attention to his songwriting is just the reward for being honest. “The older I get, the more I realize that the hardest thing to do is to tell the truth,” says Fullbright. “But it’s also the most rewarding thing, for me, and for the audience. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time with something they have to figure out.”