Songs about Songs

By Moran, Pat | Acoustic Guitar, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Songs about Songs


Moran, Pat, Acoustic Guitar


On his second album for Blue Dirt Records, Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Fullbright delivers on the promise of his elegant studio debut From the Ground Up, which netted him a Grammy nod in 2013 and drew comparisons to rootsy mavericks such as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Like those two titans of Americana, Fullbright deftly straddles the worlds of pop and folk in Songs, a collection that sounds both contemporary and timeless.

Raised in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, Fullbright has been mentioned as a successor to that great Dust Bowl laureate-a latter-day, high-plains troubadour with a grainy, conversational delivery and a hardscrabble, humanist outlook. Certainly, the ghosts of Guthrie and Tom Joad linger in Fullbright's vocals, but his plainspoken words are wrapped in richer arrangements. And when he delivers a deceptively direct phrase like "write a song about a song," it's packed with layers of meaning about how we process emotions and why songwriters write.

It's not just the words, though. The memorable melodies on Fullbright's latest effort also seem simpler than they are, employing harmonies and chord changes that often wander off the straightforward folk-wordsmith reservation. His thumbnail sketches veer from rollicking ranchera ("Going Home") to Panhandle chamber pop (secular hymn "All That You Know"), with some songs incorporating idiosyncratic shadings of gospel and rolling R&B. He plays piano and employs an arsenal of acoustic guitars (a Martin D-18, a Guild JF-30, an Alvarez 12-string, and a $50 pawnshop nylon-string) to underpin his melodies, while a spare, yet in-the-pocket rhythm section winds through several tunes. The core of each track was cut live, and they all crackle with the electricity of musicians playing in synch and in the same room.

The opener, "Happy," an unabashed celebration of living that also serves as a witty takedown of brooding songwriters who court sorrow for inspiration, is powered by kick drum and chugging guitar as it builds to a honky-tonk crescendo. …

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