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‘Cause you can’t travel with a piano

John Fullbright on music and memories

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter John Fullbright is a master in the art of suggestion. He can play the pants off a piano, guitar, or harmonica—or would, if the instruments ever bothered to get dressed. Catch him at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in his hometown, Okemah, July 12–16, or sitting in with other musicians from time to time here in Tulsa.

John Langdon: What was the first song you learned to play?

John Fullbright: My oldest brother told me that the first song he remembers me playing was the theme song to “The X-Files” on piano. On the guitar, I learned the chords to “The Wabash Cannonball.” And then the second song I ever learned was “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” by Cher. I don’t know why, but it was in a guitar book and I loved it.

Langdon: You’re on a desert island—what three albums do you need to have?

Fullbright: Maybe Paradise and Lunch by Ry Cooder. I’m just thinking of what I’m listening to now that I just love. The Genius Sings the Blues, Ray Charles. That’s such a good one. And maybe, like, some kind of Chopin record.

Langdon: Nice. Something that you can just let flood your imagination.

Fullbright: Yeah. Don’t let words get in the way.

Langdon: On the other side of listening to music, what’s some guilty pleasure listening for you?

Fullbright: I don’t know, I’m not that ashamed. There’s some. I’ll get on Spotify or whatever and just type in “90s hits” and get, like, Gloria Estefan and just rock it, you know what I mean? Anything like that. It’s like my childhood. I think everyone’s like that. Whatever was playing on the radio when you were that age, you always go back to it.

Langdon: Yeah, I think that lends itself to cyclical trends. Nothing seems better than that stuff that you heard when you were a kid.

Fullbright: Yeah. I would even change one of my records to Cake’s Fashion Nugget ‘cause it’s just one of my favorite records of all time.

Langdon: What’s the best show you’ve ever seen in Tulsa?

Fullbright: Man, there’s all those Cain’s shows and Brady shows, but I remember one night. Everyone told me about Steve Pryor—I didn’t really know anything about him except that everybody knew who he was. He and Paul Benjaman were very close, and I watched them go head to head at The Colony one night, and I watched him just unfold. And I’ve never seen anything like it. He would paint himself into a corner, musically and then just soar out of it. And seeing Paul just in respect and admiration for Steve—it was, musically, one of the more impressive things.

Langdon: Those two having a guitar conversation was hard to beat.

Fullbright: And Paul’s a genius, but it was like student and master too. They were both feeding off of each other’s energy.

Langdon: You’ve been living in Tulsa for a couple years now, right?

Fullbright: Let’s call it a year and a half.

Langdon: How do you like it?

Fullbright: I love it. I’ve lived in Okemah my whole life. I’ve never lived in a city. Even though I travel for a living and spend almost every weekend in some new city, I’ve never lived in one. And I didn’t think I would, really. But man, it’s been great. The community around it is so meaningful but it’s also convenient. Even though there’s no grocery stores on the north side, it’s still not that far, compared to living in Okemah where you’ve got to drive to town to do anything. And I don’t have to burn my own trash anymore and stuff like that.

And it’s changed so much since I was a kid. All this Kaiser cash coming in and fixing up downtown, it’s incredible to see. It gives me hope that you can revitalize a city with a billionaire philanthropist liberal Jew in a city that’s this conservative. I think that’s badass.

Langdon: What’s one of the most memorable shows you’ve played?

Fullbright: We just did a thing for Jimmy LaFave days before he died. He planned the whole thing. Meticulously. He was days from death and he planned every detail of it. Nobody thought he was gonna get on stage, and he got on stage and sang “Goodnight Irene,” and then he died. Everyone was just crying and crying. It was burned into my brain.

Langdon: He was basically attending his own funeral.

Fullbright: Everyone said, “I love you,” and “goodbye” to him in the audience. Not to him personally, but just, like, in his general direction, while the whole crowd’s there. It was incredible.

Langdon: Most don’t get that chance.

Fullbright: It was equally good and bad.

Langdon: Was there ever a moment that you thought, “This is what I want to do with my life”?

Fullbright: I always thought, growing up in a very non-musical environment, that if you were gonna be a professional musician, it meant that you put on a tuxedo and played a giant piano. That was my cartoon version of what it was like to play music. And then when I got older, I thought that you had to be Garth Brooks. You had to be, like, the most successful person that ever lived, and that’s the only way that you can play music. And then I met Tom Skinner. He didn’t have a lot of money. He didn’t need a lot of money. And he was such an artist. Just, a singular voice, you know? I didn’t know anything about cash and getting paid for music, except that I knew he was getting paid something or he wouldn’t have been there. And I thought, “How cool. He’s not a superstar, and yet here he is … that sounds like me.” I’m too shy to do all that other stuff. This is my speed right here.

Langdon: Chris Blevins did the last Courtyard Concert and he told basically that same story, but about hearing you on NPR and thinking, this guy is my age, and he’s doing this. Why can’t I do it too?

Fullbright: That’s funny. We grew up in almost the same damn town too.

Langdon: It’s like a lineage. Maybe not even a lineage, but like a community.

Fullbright: It’s almost like a scene. Like, how would you define a scene? Well, that’s part of it. Somebody does something, you go, “I wanna do that,” you know? And then you’re pals. Like, for life. That’s what’s funny about the whole thing. You’re not competing with each other, you’re just imitating each other, in so many words. Maybe imitating is the wrong word.

Langdon: It’s nice to be in a place that has that kind of cohesive unit.

Fullbright: I was about to say Tulsa’s good for that, but Oklahoma’s good for that. ‘Cause Oklahoma’s a big small town. It’s fertile ground for that kind of shit. It’s the not competing part. And if it is, it gets weeded out. At the same time, nobody’s exactly rising to the tippy-top. But nobody wants to.

Langdon: It’s kind of good enough being part of it.

Fullbright: Yeah, exactly.

Langdon: What’s a non-musical influence on the way you play music?

Fullbright: My grandpa had such an old-school way of talking. Big, pregnant pauses. You’d ask him a question, say like, “Why is the sky blue?” And he’d just sit there and think about it. Really think about it. And I’d go off and do something else and then he’d come back and say, “Remember when you asked me why was the sky blue?” And then he’d say some one-liner, that was probably a little sarcastic, or a little bit sad, that would just perfectly explain it. And that was it.

So as a songwriter, you’ve got, like, two lines to explain what a writer might do with a whole bunch of paragraphs, maybe. There’s that big, long letter supposedly from Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the war, and at the end of it, he says, “Sorry for the long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” And I think that’s songwriting.

Langdon: It’s about boiling it down to the essential, and whatever might not be said in words is said through the music.

Fullbright: That’s what’s fun about it … it’s like a puzzle that you make. Once you write the line, the game has begun, you know? You go, “Okay, here’s the rules, but I don’t want to play by the rules, so I’m gonna do this other thing.” It’s like writing your own crossword.

Langdon: You start with that one piece, and you go, “Okay. I don’t know what the complete whole of this is even gonna be,” but piece by piece it kind of shapes itself.

Fullbright: I’ve talked to Kevin Welch about this, who’s an Okie songwriter. He’s a really dear friend of mine and we talk about songwriting. He’s a master-class, powerhouse songwriter with a pretty illustrious career. We talk about writing short stories, just writing short fiction. And we both came to the same conclusion, which is, once you’re trained to write a song, once you’ve learned the rules and write a bunch, you look at a blank piece of paper and go, “What am I supposed to do with all of this?” It’s just endless.

Langdon: All the possibilities.

Fullbright: And then there’s another page and another page. If I get to the bottom of a page when I’m writing a song, and I still have more to say, something’s fucked up. Something went wrong and I’ve gotta go back and figure out where it went wrong, because it’s supposed to sit right there on that one page.

Langdon: Writing a song kind of has some made-up parameters around it that help to focus it.

Fullbright: It’s so zany too. You could just do whatever.

Langdon: But whatever it is in you mind that, like, “is a song,” it somehow has to fit that or somehow challenge that in a way.

Fullbright: I get mad because—I’m a snob—but songwriting to me is—like right now, we’re being bombarded by this song. I can’t not listen to this. You can’t not see when you’re eyes are open, and you can’t not hear when you’re awake. So, as long people are being subjected to this thing, it might as well be fucking, pretty good. Because if I’m gonna read something, at least I’m the one who’s in control of where my eyes go. But you can’t get away from this unless you physically walk away or plug up your ears. So, if you think about that whenever you’re writing it down, like, if this was playing at a bar and someone had to hear it, say something. Don’t just say nothing.

Langdon: Who made you want to play the piano like you do?

Fullbright: Jerry Lee Lewis, as a kid. That was big. Then my mom signed me up for classical piano. Nancy Duvall, the lady that played at the Methodist church would do piano lessons. So I got really into Beethoven and Chopin, the basic piano student stuff. But it really moved me. It changed the way I heard stuff, as it should.

Then when I was about 13, someone gave me a Leon Russell record and I lost my shit. My whole life, “Tightrope” or something would come on the radio, and my mom would say, “I think that’s Leon Russell. We’re related to him. He was a druggie.” That’s how he was always summed up: “That’s Leon Russell, we’re related to him, he’s a druggie, and that’s why he never became famous,” which is preposterous. We are technically related, by marriage, super distantly.

But anyway, I got that record and went, “Holy shit.” I found my mom’s old guitar, and she said if I got my grades up, she’d string that guitar. I got my grades up for the first and only time in my life. She strung the guitar, I learned to play “The Wabash Cannonball,” and I was hooked, because you could travel with it. I was about that age where I needed some kind of sexual advantage. I was pudgy, small, shy, and I thought, “I’m gonna learn to play the guitar and the girls are just gonna fall over.” ‘Cause I can’t travel with a piano, and they’re not gonna come to me, obviously.

So I’m learning to play the guitar and getting into Hendrix and stuff, and then somebody handed me that Leon record and I just went, “Holy shit. This is so much cooler to me, as a piano-minded person. And then it was just all over after that.

Langdon: I took piano lessons from a young age and it always felt very academic to me. Like I was being taught how to play this instrument like it was a class in school. And it’s just been relatively recently that I feel like I’ve freed myself of that mental block and can express myself with it.

Fullbright: That’s so funny, because I remember in my most academic phase, which was taking piano lessons from Nancy Duvall—a very straight-laced and Christian woman, but very sweet and very smart. We became really good friends, eventually. One of the ways I’d waste time—she had this musical encyclopedia, and I’d be like can you play this song that goes “da da da da daduhdah?” And she’s like, “Yeah, Grieg, ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King.’” And then she’s looking for it and I’m just wasting time, 30 minutes on the clock. Then she’d get it out and play it, and it’d be thrilling. It’d be like a concert, but it’s just me and her. And I’d just sit there fascinated that anyone could read a piece of paper and play all that stuff. And then she’d turn the page and go, “Oh, here’s another thing he did.” And it’d be like, “Aase’s Death,” and it would be the saddest thing I’d ever heard. I’d sit there and tear up and try to hide it. That’s what made it not academic to me. And then we’d go back to the silly, cartoon “Hamburgers on Parade” or whatever. But for that one second, she’d play this moving piece and the music would become so emotional again, like it’s supposed to be. Then we’d get back to the rigmarole of piano lessons. That kept me interested. I’d get that feeling like, “Whoa, that just moved me.” I’d get that feeling in my stomach, like the floor just dropped out. Like I’m freefalling. That crazy feeling you feel when it’s really good, you know? That kept me on Team Music for sure.

Langdon: In as few or as many words as you’d like to put to it, what is music to you?

Fullbright: Music is the language of emotion. Like that feeling in the pit of your stomach whenever you hear something that feels like it was custom-made for you. You go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe anyone else felt like this before.” We’re a language-based animal, and one of the more complicated things that we’ve got in our toolbox is music. It speaks when nothing else can.

Langdon: It can be more simple and complex than written or spoken language at once.

Fullbright: The difference is, there’s something so final about music, too. Where it’s like, “No, no, no, don’t get me wrong. What I meant to say was…” That doesn’t really exist. Like, “You misheard what I was trying to say.” No. You felt something? Then that’s what I meant to say. 

For more from the courtyard, watch Chris Blevins play his song, “Better Than Alone.”