John Fullbright Headlines Sea Level Fest

fullbright-bdcdrelease-may12-1344-vrfarmerThe last time John Fullbright was in Norfolk, five years ago, he played a private house concert in a garage for about 80 people.

To say his career has taken off since then would be like saying Bob Dylan has written some pretty good songs.

In 2012, Fullbright, then 24, self-released his studio debut, “From the Ground Up.” Among fans of great songwriting, it quickly found devotees. NPR called him an “Artist You Should Know,” comparing him to Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman. The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and other heavy hitters extolled his talent.

Then his little record earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana album. The other nominees? Bonnie Raitt, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers, and Mumford & Sons. Not bad company.

How did that Grammy nod happen?

“I think about that all the time,” Fullbright says on a call from his grandparents’ house near Okemah, Oklahoma, where he lives part of the time. “I still can’t come up with why or how that came to be.”

Fullbright will be the headliner for the Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival on April 2 at The Roper Performing Arts Center in downtown Norfolk. The festival benefits Tidewater Arts Outreach, an organization that arranges for local musicians to play for people in assisted living homes and other places who can’t get out to hear music.

Fullbright attended high school in Okemah. If the name sounds familiar, it’s the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. Though Fullbright grew up near there, and not right in the small town, media outlets nonetheless seized on the connection.

When he last played in Norfolk, a crowd member called for a Woody song. “Woody who?” he joked. “That hack.” He explained he didn’t know who Guthrie was until he was almost out of high school and came to him through Bob Dylan, the way so many people do. The only picture in his high school was of Larry Coker, the former University of Miami football coach. Not Woody.

Fullbright’s second album, the cleverly-named, “Songs,” came forth in 2014 and earned more plaudits. The disc represented Fullbright’s maturing and challenging himself to go deeper. The years after the Grammy nod, he notes, were not always easy.

“It’s been strange, kind of difficult at times,” he adds, “but I’m pretty satisfied with the whole thing. I just didn’t expect any of it. It all just happened quick. “

He still seems surprised to be playing alongside artists he’s a fan of. Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Ashley Monroe, and Jimmy LaFave, among others, are fans. Songwriters like Kevin Welch and Sam Baker, who he played with the first time he was in Norfolk in 2010, are good friends.

Recently, he opened and then played Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) with Steve Earle. “It was a full circle kind of thing for me,” he says. “He was a really big deal. That seems to happen now. I’m in the green room with guys I hold in such high regard from when I was learning to write songs. It’s really a strange feeling. I have to stop sometimes and say if I could go back in time and show this snapshot to a 16-year-old version of myself, I don’t know how I would handle it.”

He didn’t know he was going to be on the road for so long and so hard. He’s happy to have cut back in the past year, splitting his time between the country house and a small apartment in Tulsa.

“All the adulation and stuff, I just didn’t expect. I appreciate it, but it’s been kind of a learning process how to handle that stuff,” he says. “I’ve been a very shy person and I think having to learn how to not be a shy person was a little bit of a big step.”

Growing up in Oklahoma, there were two outlets — “play football or good luck,” he says — so he took up music. There was always a piano at home. His mother knew chopsticks, but not much more. So he taught himself, then started lessons at nine that lasted eight years because his mother would not let him quit. It was a very religious household. His mother listened to pipe organ Gospel music. “The worst kind of Gospel music,” he says. “Drove me nuts. No words.”

He was into rock and roll and eventually got into Gospel through Mississippi John Hurt and the Elvis Gospel record.

When it’s suggested some of his songs sound a little like hymns, he demurs. “I don’t know why,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with Gospel. I hated Gospel.”

Fullbright grew up playing in small bars and restaurants around his town, sometimes for up to four hours at a time, however long his voice lasted. But he says he’s still had to learn how to tell a joke on stage and how to play a set and then drive three hours after the show.

He’s also shifted his artistic view. “I feel like I probably have something to say now whereas then I just kind of drank from other artists’ cup, which I still do, but it seems like I have a lot more to say as an individual than I used to,” he says.

Fullbright is a scholar of songwriting. Talk about yodeling in a song and he will name a Mickey Newbury track. Talk about Townes and he has his favorites. On down the songwriting lineage. “I’ve never been scholarly about anything except songwriting,” he says. “I really studied technique and different approaches and stuff. You can do down that rabbit hole a little too far at times. It can almost get stale. Hopefully, I haven’t gone too far. I’m an athlete instead of a sports historian.”


One songwriter he says he returns to again and again is Jackson Browne, particularly “Late for the Sky.” “I kind of obsess about a record for a long time and try to learn all the tricks and the sounds and the grooves form it. Hopefully, later on I try to use it.”

His go-to records for listening are the Stax and Muscle Shoals stuff.

For “Songs,” Fullbright changed things up a bit. He says he often writes songs that he can’t sing night after night. “There’s an urgency I really like on tape,” he admits. So he tried to write melodically smarter and more economical.

He also challenged himself to go deeper, to find the truth. If he’s telling a story, he relies on his imagination. But when he’s saying something specific and personal, he works to be open and truthful.

“Saying what you mean, meaning what you say. That whole thing,” he says. “Telling the whole truth instead of telling some of the truth, then relying on artistic license to get you the rest of the way. It’s really hard to do, but it’s really gratifying to be able to say I’m not going to pussyfoot around. This is actually what I mean.”

Why the change?

“Touring. Singing the same songs night after night it may be fresh to the audience, but it’s certainly not fresh to me. If you’re going to sing a song over and over and over, presumably for the rest of your life, you need to say something with a lot of meaning,” he says. “Try to tell the whole truth. Truth never changes, never goes out of style.”

The catalyst for the change was “”Very First Time,” the last cut on “Songs.” It’s an unabashed love song.

He sings:
Don’t answer the phone
Don’t answer the door
Pretend nobody lives around here anymore
No need to get up
I brought the wine
And I feel alright
For the very first time
And I believe I’m protected
By the things I can’t see
I don’t believe in Jesus
I’m told he believes in me
And I think that’s good
Cause it’s a long hard climb
And I feel alright
For the very first time

Fullbright isn’t afraid to be happy on “Songs.” The opening cut, “Happy,” asks “Tell me what’s so bad about happy” noting the usual songwriters default to sad.

“It’s very easy to write that pity party song,” he says, “because then you get a lot of sympathy. I’ve done that. I’ll probably do that forever. I’m conscious of that now. What that actually is and what it means and what I get out of it. It’s less appealing now than it used to be.”

So is he maybe happier these days?

“Guaranteed,” he shoots back.

For tickets, go to

Magic Moments: A Decade of House Concerts

It was the nightmare I’d feared for over a decade of hosting 60 house concerts: a rogue storm, threatening almost from the time Tara Nevins and Carol Elizabeth Jones took the stage, finally unleashed a torrent about an hour into the show.

Oh, it had rained before on nights I’d hosted shows at my series, North Shore Point House Concerts, but we always either had rented a tent or put the performers in the spacious wood garage. Hours earlier, my sound man and I, coddled by the clear forecast, had decided to set up outside under blue skies.

By the time the sheet of water descended, we’d covered the stage with one canopy and the sound board with another. People raced to shelter onstage, in the garage, and in the house. “We should go inside and just play acoustic,” Tara said, huddling onstage as people retrieved garbage bags to cover the instruments.

Fans with umbrellas and garbage bags ferried others inside during the deluge. There was food. There was drink. I shared bottles of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek that I’d stashed away for the after-show. The air conditioning couldn’t keep pace; makeshift fans were fashioned.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth fixed themselves a fresh drink and sat in front of the living room fireplace. Furniture was pushed to the walls and people crowded in, many settling on the floor at their feet, a new fashioned bluegrass sit-in. Others crammed the entryway and the nearby dining room, some talking, others jockeying for a spot closer.

Tara and Carol Elizabeth played, and played, and then, when they wanted to finish, the crowd begged for one more, an old fiddle tune. A couple who attends nearly every show sat cross-legged right in front, fanning them as the music got hotter and hotter. A Donna the Buffalo fan, at his first North Shore Point show, swayed against the rear wall, occasionally singing along, encouraged by the Woodford Reserve and the moment. A daughter, up from Durham with her father, mouthed the lyrics to every song (Here is a link to their review of the evening).

They played everything they knew, outlasting the storm. With every song, every laugh or bit of applause, every shared nod, the evening became symbolic of the magic that’s happened time and again on these nights.

House concerts are many things. They’re about exploration, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new voice worth hearing. They’re about intimacy, a chance to break down the barrier between artist and audience. They’re often the only chance to get a coveted songwriter to play in this town (or many other towns, apparently; we’ve had fans travel from Nashville, Durham, D.C. and other far-flung locales for shows).

They’re about becoming a part of a community, meeting people with a shared interest in music — and maybe beer and wine and conversation. No doubt, dozens of those connections have been made at my house over the past decade. They’re about people like Bill, Mary, Mike, Wendy, Marc, Lou, Minnie, Gail, Sid, Ron, Gayle, Pat, Kelly, Russ, Barry, Charlie, Lisa, Ray, Sound Man Jim, and others who attend show after show, probably almost as much for the community as the music.
To me, house concerts, at least, my house concerts, ultimately are about these shared moments, moments created by the performer, but enabled by the setting and the community.

In the early days, artists and particularly their agents had to be convinced to book a house concert. Because of our attendance — we’ve had up 205 people at a show although a usual crowd is 80 to 100 — I’ve been able to make guarantees that made them easier to convince. Now, there are hundreds of house concert series, large and small, regularly and irregularly scheduled, across the country. They’re a part of the business plan for songwriters new and old. For every show we host, I could book five more.

At our series, all the donations at the door go to the artist. We front the money for sound, lights, chairs, when necessary, and a small stage when necessary. We do shows in three formats, outside, inside our spacious old garage, and in our living room, depending on the season and the demand for seats. Only a couple of times has the door failed to meet my guarantees and the one time the shortfall was serious happened to be the night a couple of regulars decided (not knowing) that they’d make a huge donation to help cover our costs. So, yes, each show is a nervy game of “will I cover the guarantee?,” but as host it’s my job to get the artists a decent payday.

The reward, of course, is being the maestro of those magic moments, so many over roughly 60 shows. We had a successful free trial run with Michael Lille, a superb songwriter native to Nofolk. The first show we booked asking for a donation came six months later and featured Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, a duo I’d heard on NPR. True to the shows that would follow, the informal setting encouraged them to try a song so new that Tracy read the lyrics from a notebook page. What I called the “dark womb” song appeared years later after Dave’s tragically early death on Tracy’s solo album as “Mother, I Climbed,” a haunting meditation on faith.

Indulge me looking back over a decade of the moments since that first show. Garland Jeffreys saying he didn’t need an introduction, then walking among the milling crowd, singing “Moonshine in the Cornfield” a cappella winding his way to the stage. Greg Trooper, master storyteller, mesmerizing on a chilly October night with a tale about a guy in a bar in Oklahoma, who during the break, told him he sounded just like one of his favorite songwriters, Greg Trooper.

Jeff Black bringing men to tears closing his first set with “Sunday Best” and “Gold Heart Locket. ” Jim Lauderdale saying the house had a “great vibe,” writing a song between sound check and the show, and then enduring an evening during which the electricity flickered during the first set until we realized the line into the house was literally burning out and ran extension cords to the side with good juice. Eliza Gilkyson‘s delight at returning — and then returning again. Kim Richey enchanted by her first house concert such that she sang until her voice surrendered (and then enchanted my children the next morning). She wasn’t the only first-timer. Garland Jeffreys, Dave Alvin, Steve Forbert, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Russell, Tara Nevins, and others were house concert virgins who left converts.

There was Jason Ringenberg swinging his guitar and narrowly missing decapitating a front row fan and stomping the hardwood so hard with his boot heel that people checked for dents during halftime. Jimmy LaFave and band (a rare band show) coming into the garage on a threatening night and openly wondering if it could hold 90 people (including some outside space) and whether it was a good idea, then blowing the roof off during a summer shower and raving about the vibe and the community after the show. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell and band hitting on all cylinders on a raucous and sweltering night. Don Dixon and Marti Jones, together again, leading the audience singing “Praying Mantis” as a round. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s very young daughter singing on stage for the first time. Sam Baker showing up with John Fullbright and Natalia Zukerman, two artists I didn’t know well, and deciding it would be cool to sit in the round with Kevin Welch and play songs all night, which the four of them made memorable. Amy Rigby making some of the men in attendance noticeably uncomfortable with songs like “Balls,” “Cynically Yours,” and “Beer and Kisses.”

The guys in Jimmy LaFave’s band lingered after the show to talk with fans. “You’ve got a special thing going on here,” one veteran of the road said. We hear that a lot, and, like hearing a regular has discovered a new favorite artist, it never gets old.

There are the before show dinners, at their best a respite for good food and conversation (at their worst, when musicians are late, a rushed feast as fans file in). Peter Case remembered the seared salmon with champagne vinegar potato sauce and requested it the next time. Mary Gauthier, once a chef, offered a bow to the honey gingered pork tenderloin. Eliza Gilkyson gobbled up the black bean and rice salad. Madison Violet squirreled away the leftovers for the long, after-show road trip to Toronto.

After the show, there’s often bourbon and BS. Welch, Baker, and Fullbright sipping bourbon and discussing an artist’s responsibility to his audience. David Olney debating racism in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” firing bourbon-laced ice at his antagonist. Trooper telling tales about Dan Penn, finishing songs for Aretha by writing in a studio closet. Martin Stephenson and his dobro player sitting out back, joining with a few regulars with guitar to play until 3 a.m. 

Performers often suggest artists to book. Welch and Richey recommended David Olney, a songwriter I didn’t know Months later at the show, a regular sitting in the back stopped me to whisper: “This guy is **&^* incredible. Where did you find him?”

Those moments are why I’m still excited before every show, why I’ve already booked shows into 2012 with artists like Steve Forbert, Garland Jeffreys, Kim Richey who’ve been here before, and artists new to North Shore like Nora Jane Struthers, Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Peter Cooper and Eric Brace and the legendary folk/blues master, Eric Andersen.

So I’m pouring two fingers of Knob Creek and raising a toast, not to the past,  but to the future and another decade of magic moments.