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The Reluctant Entertainer: John Fullbright, May 30 at Rozz-Tox PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 23 May 2013 08:09

John Fullbright. Photo by Vicki Farmer.

When John Fullbright plays at Rozz-Tox on May 30, expect a certain amount of ambivalence from the songwriter and musician.

I asked him in a recent phone interview whether he considers himself a good performer. “I think sometimes I am,” he said plainly.

It’s not that the 25-year-old Oklahoma native and resident doubts his chops, which earned him a Grammy nomination for his debut album, From the Ground Up. Rather, he’s not particularly comfortable in front of an audience.

“I don’t like getting on stage and saying the same jokes and doing the same thing and having a show,” he explained. “But at the same time ... that’s what people are paying for.”

In the Netherlands, he said, he didn’t know how much of his banter the audience would understand, so he ditched it. “I found that people didn’t like it,” he said. “Even if they couldn’t really understand what you were saying, they still wanted you to talk – just to show you were a human being, maybe. ... They want to go home with an experience. And they want to feel they got some of you; they took a little bit of you home with them. That’s why they came out, or they’d just sit at home with their CDs.”

He started playing piano at a young age and – inspired by Poe – wrote poetry on the school bus as a teenager. Then he decided that “maybe songwriting is something to take seriously, and it has a certain air of dignity about it, and it’s fun.” His initial interest, in other words, was in the writing rather than the performing.

But “nobody’s paying me to stay home and write,” he said. “This is not a business for one-trick ponies. It’s vaudeville, man. You gotta know how to do all kinds of stuff. You gotta know how to juggle, how to feed the elephant and pitch the tent, and then take tickets and make change at the same time. Because that’s the only way you’re going to survive and make a living. ...

“I’m a fish out of water a little bit, because this isn’t what I set out to do. I didn’t have a need to be in front of people. I kind of wanted to avoid that. But now this is part of the job, [so] you just have to do the best you can.”

Even though the stage isn’t his natural environment, there’s nothing timid about his songs, writing voice, or performance on record. From the Ground Up opens with “Gawd Above,” a ballsy bit from the Almighty’s point of view that would be blasphemous if it weren’t so thoughtful and didn’t have such a serious groove.

Like Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues” and Tom Waits’ “Road to Peace,” it has a detached, insightful view of religion and the human use of it. If that name-dropping isn’t enough, wrote of Fullbright that “his Oklahoma origins and his lyrical sophistication immediately put you in mind of other Southwestern songwriters like Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark.”

The record is as strong in its slow, lightly adorned ballads as it is in full-band mode, and its Grammy nomination in the Best Americana Album category put Fullbright in the company of the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and winner Bonnie Raitt. He said his goal for songwriting was to be able to “play every song on that record live either by myself or with a band and not rely on either.”

That hints at his high standard, and he’s clearly spent a lot of time thinking about why so many successful artists continually skate by on maddeningly vague songs. The reason, he said, is that listeners put so much of themselves into what they’re hearing. “That’s why the medium of songwriting is as powerful as it is – it’s because it’s so personal,” he said. “When you’re listening to a song, it’s your personal story all of a sudden – if you like it. And you only like it because it’s talking about you in some way. What makes me mad is just how easy it is because of that. I just don’t like lazy writing.”

He joked that getting From the Ground Up right was a function of being an unknown artist – and thus having plenty of time: “You’ve got your whole life to make your first record, right? ... I’ve recorded a lot of these songs in different places at different times. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. So by the time I got to this particular studio and stuck my face in those particular microphones, I kinda knew what I didn’t want to do. I’ve run these songs through the ringer.

“This next record that’s going to be coming out next year is the one that I’m very curious to see how it stacks up to the last one. ... I had a hell of a lot of practice on this last one. I don’t have near as much practice on this one. It’s new songs, it hasn’t been played that much, it hasn’t been experimented with very much.”

So he promised new songs for his Rock Island gig: “That’s the only way that they can get on a record. They have to be played and figured out before they’re recorded.”

John Fullbright will perform on Thursday, May 30, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; Tickets to the 8 p.m. show – which also includes Ruston Kelly – are $12 and available at Rozz-Tox and Ragged Records.

For more information on John Fullbright, visit

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