A case for record of the year: John Fullbright’s “From the Ground Up”
I don’t write on this website very often–I read it all the time, but I don’t often write. Up until now, I’ve been content to let the professional bloggers inform me about the comings and goings in the alt-country, Americana, roots-rock world (whatever that is). It’s always fun to read concert reviews, watch a video or two, and perhaps chime in on a dialog that, like coffee caramel chocolate cheesecake, you just can’t seem to stay away from (e.g., “5 records which changed your life”). But for me, the most rewarding aspect of hanging around the ND site is discovering new music. It could be new music from some of your old favorites, or new music from some unknown or obscure songwriter. There is SO much new music out there it’s really hard to keep up on it—just check out the list of CD reviews on this site! Surely I can’t be the only one who peruses the list and thinks “holy shit, I don’t know who half these artists are”. But, in the end, after reading all the reviews you can stand and listening to all of the delicious song bites, something good always seems to come from it. Lord knows I’ve picked up many a new record because of reviews—or raves—on this site. Thanks to the likes of Ed, Gillian, Kim, and good old Lee’s Listening Stack, my Ipod is now fuller, fatter, and better for it (e.g., William Pilgrim, Drivin n Cryin, Alela Diane). So, at this time of year, when everyone is busy putting together their “best of” lists, I decided to be totally uncreative and follow suit—sort of. What follows is a discourse on why John Fullbright’s “From The Ground Up” gets my nod for record of the year. I’m not trying to accomplish anything big here—I’m not Fullbright’s secret publicist or anything like that—I just want to tell you why I like this record so goddamn much. Besides, it’s the holiday season and the time for spreading joy—and this record hits it in spades. And, at the least, it’ll give me some practice at blogging—who knows, I might like it.
Perhaps it’s silly to write about a record that just got nominated for a Grammy—after all, this may mean that everyone already knows about it and everything has already been said. But what the hell—I was thinking about this well before the nominations were announced (and, by the way, congrats John). So, I first learned about this record after watching a video of John performing his album-opening “Gawd Above” with just guitar and harmonica at some bar or venue in a small town, somewhere (I like to think of it this way). Watching that video was like seeing a cougar cross your path—it stopped me dead in my tracks. I mean the song was good, the melody catchy, but it was that voice—that powerful, demanding voice coming from a seemingly smallish sort of guy warning me that “I am Gawd above, lord Gawd almighty mama”. I love how he throws that sassy “mama” in there, indicating that his reverence isn’t 100% complete. So, from there, after watching that video, I was like “WTF?”—and I immediately bought the album. Since then, it’s been nothing but pure bliss spinning this disc at home, in the car, wherever—it doesn’t matter. It’s been a record that has elicited a whirlwind of emotions, from the hairs on the back of my neck coming to attention (“Gawd Above”), to smiles of joy (“Moving”), to a bit of laughter (“All the Time in the World”), and to tears (“Song for a Child”). We’ll get to a few particulars in a moment.
I actually had the pleasure of meeting John—no, not just meeting him, but kinda, sorta, actually hanging out with him (and with Mary Guthier, Abigail Washburn, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, and Catie Curtis, et al.)—at a songwriter’s camp that takes place every year a few days prior to the Sisters Folk Festival. I now know that John isn’t a big guy and that that voice comes from what must be oversized lungs housed in a rather smallish package. John also seems to be a rather quiet guy who apparently doesn’t like to draw a lot of attention to himself. I actually did a one-on-one session with him where we spent 15-20 minutes just talking about stuff—his record, sudden notoriety, the music business, his early home life. For some reason, I was curious why there was so much biblical reference in many of his songs—what was it about the bible that compelled him to use it so often in his songs. I mean, I kind of wanted to know if he was some deeply religious guy (I am not) and whether we should expect his sophomore effort to cross over into Christian rock territory. He told me that religion was a force in his family (he’s from the Midwest, after all) and that yes, he had read and studied the bible a bit. He also told me that if you’re a songwriter, and it’s metaphor, imagery, and parables you’re after, there’s no better book to get it from than the bible. But, he also said that using the bible as a songwriting tool was something he felt he had to do, something he had to get out of his system. He told me he’s done with it and he’ll be moving on to other things. After camp, we all headed down to the folk festival and watched our colleagues (can I call them that, after songwriter’s camp?) tear it up (in many ways, this isn’t your grandfather’s folk fest). I even saw John from time to time roaming around Sisters and checking out his brothers and sisters at various venues. My only regret is not playing music with him—I could’ve—but it just didn’t happen. Maybe next time.
Now, finally, on to the record—there’s no need for creative metaphor here, all you need to know is that this is a damn, fine album. It’s end to end filled with the stuff ND readers would love and appreciate. Musically, things range from full, rootsy band treatments to piano ballads, with lots of harmonica thrown in to suggest that John spent at least some of his early years as a classic troubadour. Lyrically, his writing is crisp and succinct and, to me, he uses metaphor in a way that doesn’t cloud his meaning. I think he’s a pretty direct writer—you know what his songs are about (or at least you think you do). The melodies are there, sometimes subtle, and always catchy to make you turn your ear towards the speaker. The songs are sequenced just right, with some good up tempo numbers followed by quieter piano ballads. Yes, I know this type of sequencing is rote, but I think it’s done for a reason and in this case, since all the songs are keepers, it works wonders. Besides his songs that use biblical metaphor or reference to tell us about the follies of man or religion (“Gawd Above”, “Jericho”, “I Only Pray at Night”, “Satan and St. Paul”), he also takes the time to skewer corporate America (“Fat Man”), to ponder love or, as Tim Easton would say, the lack thereof (“Forgotten Flowers”, “Me Wanting You”, “Nowhere to be Found”), and to give us hope and have some fun with an infectious beat (“Moving”, “All the Time in the World”). He even wrote a song describing the love a parent can have for their children—with one part for the girls, one part for the boys, and that dispenses some sage advice to the little tykes (“always question authority”). As a father of two daughters, these simple lines moved me to tears:
Little girls grow up to be their mommas
That makes daddies love them even more
But today you’ve got to make a promise
You’ll be mommas child for evermore
But, in the end, for me, it’s his voice that really steals the show. On the record, it’s powerful, searing, sometimes growling. Listen to the powerhouse verses and choruses, listen to his extensions of some syllables—you just know that the veins on the sides of his neck are protruding, his lungs and diaphragm are doing the job of a well-trained singer, he could indeed blow down a house of bricks. Live, it’s amazing to hear such a voice come from such a small guy. But it’s there, it’s real, and it’ll absolutely blow you away.
In times of toil and trouble, we often turn to music for some solace and respite from the news of the day. During happier times, music can be a spark that invigorates our lives and clears our vision to all that is good in the world—kind of like that first gin and tonic on a warm, summer day. John Fullbright’s music does this, and more. I can’t wait to hear more from him and, selfishly, I hope he sticks with his current formula, at least for a while. Give us two or three albums of this stuff—it’ll be good, I know it will, and it’ll provide a good foundation for the John Fullbright “catalog”. After all, I never stop at just one gin and tonic.