Small-town kid makes good, and busts myths about tragic artists

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 John Fullbright

John Fullbright (VICKI FARMER / July 3, 2014)

On long bus rides to and from school while growing up in central Oklahoma, John Fullbright would kill time by reading and scribbling rhymes and little poems in his notebook.

The life of Edgar Allen Poe – both his craftsmanship as a writer and his tragic personal story – particularly entranced him. "That was my first introduction to that 'I'm sad, therefore I must write' stuff, and Poe led me straight to Townes (Van Zandt)," says Fullbright, whose plainspoken Grammy-nominated tunes bear more than a trace of Van Zandt's influence in their attention to sharp wordplay and memorable melodies. "Townes had a sense of humor, he had melodies, and this marvelous life that was as tragic as it could be. I was predestined to enjoy that character. I got that (2004) documentary about Townes ('Be Here to Love Me'), and watched it once a week for a year-and-a-half. I needed an identity, and boy did he have it."

Fullbright's second album, the recent "Songs" (Thirty Tigers), kicks off with a catchy bit of meta songwriting called "Happy," in which Fullbright muses on the mythology that has swirled around tragic poets such as Poe and Van Zandt and their influence on his own work. "Tell me what's so bad about happy?" the chorus asks.

"Townes was a sick person who wrote really brilliant songs," Fullbright says. "I once thought you have to be sick to write those kinds of songs. But the older and more confident I got in my writing ability, I began to realize it's a copout. You can be a normal, sane, healthy person and write miserable songs (laughs). 'Happy' is really a joke, kind of having a laugh at that whole concept, but underneath it all is the idea that the hard-living, beat-yourself-up lifestyle was a copout for a songwriter."

Fullbright, 26, came out of almost nowhere to receive a Grammy nomination and growing acclaim as a key figure in Americana music. His home of Bearden, Oklahoma, is a farming town populated by 140 people, including Fullbright, his parents and two younger brothers.

"As a kid there were no sidewalks, no malls, no place to skateboard or even catch a bus," he says. "You had to rely fully on someone giving you a ride, because to see anyone your own age would be 15 minutes by car."

Fortunately, Fullbright's parents had an upright piano in the house that had been part of the family for 100 years. Nobody played it, until young John began fooling around with it. "My brothers were bigger than me – they were hunters, sports guys," he says. "That didn't interest me. But the piano made just a fantastic noise. The more I messed with it, I found I could get these little melodies out of it. That was the spark."

As a kid, music always fascinated him. He remembers as a 6-year-old "bawling my eyes out" because he was so moved when he first heard "Fiddler on the Roof." His uncle made a mix tape of country-folk songwriters for his dad, which he appropriated. It introduced him to the music of Guy Clark, Steve Earle, James McMurtry and Van Zandt.

"None of those guys put on the goofy cowboy hat, and they weren't CMT material," Fullbright says. "But the craft of what they were doing knocked me out. I spent a long time trying to figure out who they were."

Fullbright developed his confidence by performing at open-mic nights in Okemah, Oklahoma, and played in a couple of rock bands. His first album, "From the Ground Up," was intended as a demo, but Fullbright and his producer, Wes Sharon, decided that the rough-hewn songs were just fine as they were and released them without sugar-coating. Its modesty belied the strength of the songs, and brought a Grammy nomination for best Americana album.

"Songs" is even more stripped back, after Fullbright and Sharon initially tinkered with more elaborate arrangements. The singer says the songs demanded a sparser approach because his writing has become more economical. "Roger Miller used to write a two-minute song and say a lot. It taught me the value of squeezing more into each line, about making your exact point as compactly as possibly. It's about fitting life into three minutes."

The growing recognition is nice, he says, but he says it's always the craft that has motivated him.

"I never thought about having a career in this," he says. "My main anxiety was that I wanted to specialize in something, because that's how I was raised. My parents instilled in me the idea that you find something you want to do and be good at it. I didn't want to build houses, dig ditches or sit at a computer all day. I didn't know that there was a full-blown career out of just writing and recording songs in the stars for me. I just assumed that whatever dead-end job I have, I will always have this, something I do just for me, some way to express myself. But I never really got a job. As a teenager, I was sneaking into clubs and playing bars. I made just enough money to scrape by. I got better at what I did and joined bands, and made just enough to scrape by. Now I'm two records in, and I'm still making just enough to scrape by."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

Other recommended shows

Paul McCartney: After an illness earlier this year derailed a tour of Japan, the 72-year-old legend is back at it with a firecracker of a band. His lengthy career-spanning shows have been dynamic and frequently moving affairs. 8 p.m. Wednesday at the United Center, 1901 W. Madison, $29.50, $59.50, $89.50, $165, $250; ticketmaster.com

Janelle Monae: The Atlanta-based singer weaves Afro-futuristic perspective into songs spanning soul, funk, rock and jazz. Her 2013 tour was a knockout blend of dance, theater and shimmying music. 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Taste of Chicago in the Petrillo Bandshell, Grant Park, $25 and $50 (pavilion), lawn seating free; cityofchicago.org

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: FitzGerald's American Music Festival, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn

Tickets: $25 and $30; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com

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