Although All Souls Acoustic Coffeehouse just wrapped up its 2009 fall/winter schedule with an amazing songwriters circle featuring Slaid Cleeves and Terri Hendrix, that doesn't mean the concert series is ready to go into hibernation. If anything, it's just beginning to awaken as All Souls turns around to begin the 2010 winter/spring series Friday night, Jan. 9, with another cool show.
While the series is largely known for bringing in nationally touring artists, those familiar with the series also know that it serves to spotlight some amazing local artists and expose them to an audience that might not otherwise venture out to one of their standard club gigs. In keeping with the standards of the coffeehouse series, the musicianship is always top notch and a representation of some of our finest young musicians.
Once in a while, however, All Souls stumbles upon a truly inspiring local talent that leaves you in awe. This weekend's concert with Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe will showcase a pair of great guitarists and Fulks' gift for folk and country songwriting, but the real surprise of the evening just might prove to be Okemah native John Russell Fullbright.
Fullbright is relatively new on the local music scene and something of a burst of fresh air in Tulsa circles, as most of his shows to date have been in Oklahoma City and elsewhere. Nevertheless, his gift for song craft and rustic, vivid imagery have immediately grasped the hearts and imaginations of Tulsa music lovers.
One listen to Fullbright and it's obvious that he approaches the songwriting process differently than others. Yes, he carries a distinct melodicism, but his tunes share more with folk music than the current singer-songwriter scene as he focuses more on storytelling and painting pictures with stark and striking compositions.
Fullbright said last week that he's fairly new to the music scene, at least as a songwriter. He chuckled to himself when summarizing his musical past by saying, "I grew up in Okemah, graduated high school, tried going to college, grabbed a keyboard, dropped out and joined a rock band. The rock band got too loud, so I grabbed a guitar and now I'm doing this..."
Perhaps that's oversimplifying things a bit, but that's also typical for Fullbright, who consistently proves to be humble and understated.
That time in a rock band was actually near a year's tenure as keyboard player for Mike McClure, something of a contemporary icon within Red Dirt circles in his own right. It should come as no surprise then that Fulbright should emerge as a fine songwriter after being immersed in the Red Dirt scene.
Even so, Fullbright admits that although he knows many of those musicians and counts them as friends, his music doesn't really fit within the current Red Dirt genre as it is currently recognized. More strictly folk than country or blues, there's certainly some Red Dirt there, but that's not the defining factor so much as Fullbright's folk derived roots.
"For me, it's all about the songs. I try to be a student of songwriting more than anything else," he explains, citing songwriters like Jimmy Webb, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt as his primary influences. "I've been studying the good guys, the masters, and focusing on one song at a time."
According to Fullbright, his concern is more with refocusing and returning to the actual craft of songwriting--the process, the lyricism and the structure.
In fact, he said that he believes that currently, most people aren't as focused on how well a song is crafted as they are on how good it sounds--and to his ears, those are two distinctly different things.
When listening to Fullbright's songs, it seems that an obvious reference point would be another Okemah native, Woody Guthrie. When mentioning this however, he's quick to point out that the similarities are more coincidence than anything else.
"I guess it's natural, but I didn't really even know anything about Woody until a few years ago," Fullbright said. "I grew up in Okemah, but they don't really talk about him or teach anything about him. He might get mentioned if he comes up in a history book or something, but that's about it." If anything, he said that he's found himself frustrated that he didn't really find out about Guthrie until he started to separate himself from Okemah.
Instead of using Guthrie as a reference point, Fullbright openly reveals Townes Van Zandt as his primary influence. Once he began studying Van Zandt's songwriting style, it opened up a whole new world of music and composition for him.
For Fullbright, the primary appeal and inspiration comes from Van Zandt's lyrics and compositional structure--the details and intricacies of his writing.
"I'm kind of a structured guy," Fullbright said, "and I need that when I write. I'm kind of like an architect or mathematician in that way."
While he admits that he nearly drove himself crazy trying to emulate Van Zandt's meticulousness, he's also glad he did because it helped give him a better appreciation of songs that are well structured and crafted--his current goal with his own compositions.
While he admits that "For awhile there, I pretty much thought Townes Van Zandt hung the moon," Fullbright's exposure to detailed songwriters quickly expanded. "Townes led to Steve Earle, who led to Jimmy Webb, and it all just exploded from there." Along the way, he met Greg Johnson, who owns the Blue Door in Oklahoma City and who Fullbright calls "an encyclopedia of songwriting knowledge."
Although Fullbright is a young pup on the scene, both in age and the fact that he's just been a practicing, professional singer-songwriter for roughly a year, his talents are undeniable. He immediately captured the attention and encouragement of Tom Skinner, whom he openly credits with being "the guy who stuck his foot in the door for me," which in turn led him to the Red Dirt Rangers, Greg Jacobs, and eventually Greg Johnson at The Blue Door, with whom Fullbright has been working.
He also recently scored a record deal with Jimmy LaFave's Music Road label and will be returning to Austin later this month to try and finish up the new record at Cedar Creek studios. With all this happening so quickly and early in his career, Fullbright promises to be an inspiring and prolific songwriter for years to come. This weekend's show at All Souls will also be one of Tulsa's first opportunities to witness him performing a full set of his own material, so it should be an incredible evening.
Of course, that's not to overlook the evening's headliner. Robbie Fulks is an amazing flatpicker and a renowned, Chicago-based country songwriter with a long standing association with the Chicago Old Town School of Folk. Accompanied by Robbie Gjersoe, who has also served as sideman for Joe Ely, it will prove to be a great night of guitar playing and songwriting.
Even so, you'll definitely want to arrive early and witness John Russell Fullbright. Hints of Woody Guthrie, John Prine, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt come through as one of Oklahoma's strongest new songwriters continues to improve and develop his own voice. Tickets are $15 and available in advance at the Midtown Border Bookstore or by phone at 743-2363. You can also try your luck at the door, but the last few shows in the All Souls series have been at capacity, so you'll want to arrive early for the 7:30pm show.
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