Wednesday night at South by Southwest. (Photo courtesy Richard Webb)
AUSTIN, Texas -- Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did -- until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase -- the first of eight gigs he has here this week -- was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but -- sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps -- the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state -- Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
... and there's more SXSW 2012 coverage here!