In an industry full of egomaniacs, phonies, and viper Capitalists, it’s kind of refreshing to happen upon a reluctant and conflicted performer who seems almost embarrassed to proffer up a new album for your listening pleasure. I’m half convinced that the only reason John Fullbright is even releasing an album right now is to get everyone off his damn back so he can spend the next eight years like he’s done the last eight, which is being a role player in the Tulsa music scene who is just as content as a side musician in someone else’s band as he is seeing his own John Hancock up there on a local marquee, while the rest of the world leaves him alone.
Born in the folk mecca of Okemah, Oklahoma where Woody Guthrie and Evan Felker also took their first breaths, John Fullbright came up as an understudy of one of the great Red Dirt founding fathers Mike McClure, and had a cup of coffee in the Turnpike Troubadours before launching a solo career. His debut album From the Ground Up from from 2012 went off and earned itself a Grammy nomination, and it was all over for staying under the radar, and out of the spotlight for Fullbright. Prone to social anxiety and seemingly outright repulsed at the idea of fame, the only way to rectify his early success was to downgrade his own prospects by going local, and underground.
But now John Fullbright is back with a new album called Liar, and no matter how reticent of a performer he might be for earning fawning praise and attention, that doesn’t translate to a lack of passion here. Quite the contrary. And by giving himself eight years to get out of his own head and refine a set of a dozen songs, it has rendered positive results for those in the pursuit of piano-driven and songwriter-based folk/Americana.
The piano isn’t just an instrument to John Fullbright. It’s his life compass and point of equilibrium. No matter what other chaos may be transpiring out there—a nuclear holocaust could be happening just outside—as long as he’s in front of the ivories, he’s at home, and sated. Yes, he’s like the Schroeder character from the old Peanuts comic strip. In front of the piano, the inhibitions melt away for Fullbright, and the muse flows. Anyone who’s seen him perform live will testify to this.
The opening song of this new album called “Bearden 1645” starts off rather silly, and you may become concerned that to combat his writer’s block, Fullbright has resorted to nonsense lyricism. But the song resolves into a tribute to his best friend in life. “Everybody needs something they can cling to, a place for happiness to bring you,” Fullbright croons. “I’ve got a piano I can sing to.”
Where the power of John Fullbright and his piano come into full form is the third song on the album, which is the stunning and reverent “Stars.” An immediate Song of the Year nominee that he’s been performing live for a while now, compositions like this are the reason John Fullbright fans have been salivating for something new from the songwriter for the better part of a decade. Toss out the entire rest of the record if you wish. “Stars” makes it all worth the wait and hassle.
As much as this is a piano-based record, it’s also distinctly a Tulsa record. Fullbright calls upon Tulsa musicians like Jesse Aycock, Aaron Boehler, Paul Wilkes, Stephen Lee, and Paddy Ryan to be the album’s wrecking crew. Remember, Leon Russell was also a Tulsa guy, and a keys player, and one of the best at melding country influences with other styles, similar to Tulsa’s J.J. Cale, who similar to Fullbright, always chose artistry over fame. This is the Tulsa Sound, and approach.
Though Liar is not especially “country,” the title track is a whiskey lullaby that very well could work as a country song. The well-written “Unlocked Doors” which first appeared on Fullbright’s 2009 live album features steel guitar, and the song “Where We Belong” is certainly a country song. But overall this is a John Fullbright album at its heart, speaking to his insecurities on the song “Social Skills,” and putting melody and rhythm to his struggles and proclivities.
At the beginning of his career, John Fullbright was considered one of the fastest-rising names in the Americana scene, validated by a Grammy nomination. Now an album released eight years later into a musical world where there are dozens of rising names, and some in independent country and Americana have become outright superstars, the threat is that it gets overlooked. But the talent has never waned from Fullbright. And no matter how conflicted he might feel about it, his music deserves attention.
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Purchase John Fullbright’s The Liar