Wes Sharon is enjoying a quiet afternoon at 115 Recording, his
hole-in-the-wall recording studio in Norman, Oklahoma. There’s a drum
session scheduled for 2 o’clock, and John Fullbright – Sharon’s most
well-known client, back in Oklahoma for a week of vacation before
hitting the road again – might stop by during the evening. Still, for
a studio that churned out a Top 20 country album (Turnpike
Troubadours’ Goodbye Normal Street) and a Grammy-nominated folk record (Fullbright’s From The Ground Up) in 2012, day-to-day life at 115 Recording has been surprisingly normal.
“When John got the Grammy nomination,” Sharon says, “we both thought, ‘Wow, man, it’s gonna get super busy!’ But honestly, nothing’s changed. I’ve done some interviews, and John is playing a lot of shows … but as far as my own work goes, it’s business as usual.”
It’s early January, and the 55th Grammy Awards are still a month away. Nominees were announced back in December, and From The Ground Up – Fullbright’s studio debut, recorded and mixed on a shoestring budget in three short weeks – received a nod for “Best Americana Album.” It was an unexpected nomination, landing Fullbright alongside contenders
like Mumford & Sons, Bonnie Raitt and The Avett Brothers. Other
Oklahoma natives received nominations, too, but virtually all of them – Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Ronnie Dunn, Vince Gill – are country megastars.
“We kind of feel like the ugly girl at the dance,” Sharon jokes. “We
did that record for nothing, you know? It was literally a fraction of
a fraction of the Avett Brothers’ budget. We’re so proud of what we created, though. I’m calling it ‘the little record that could.’”
Meanwhile, seventy miles down the I-40 East, John Fullbright is
enjoying a similarly quiet afternoon in Bearden. With 140 residents
and 7.5 square miles of land, Bearden is almost too small to be
considered a small town, its biggest claim to fame being the proximity to Okemah, Woody Guthrie’s birthplace. Fullbright grew up here, in the same single-story farmhouse that graces the cover of From The Ground Up. The house is his now, and his parents live in a newer home next
door. Evan Felker, frontman of Turnpike Troubadours, lives nearby, but this isn’t a very rock and roll neighborhood. Did we mention that his parents live next door?
“I sound like a dweeb,” he admits, “but I miss this when I’m gone. I
miss being at home with my piano. I don’t really have any hobbies. At night, the only thing I wanna do is sit at this piano with a drink and just fool around, you know? And maybe watch ‘Boardwalk Empire.’”
Fullbright started fooling around on the piano when he was five years old. He taught himself the basics, then graduated to boogie-woogie and blues. At his mom’s insistence, he started taking formal lessons, but the only lessons that seemed to stick were the self-taught ones, like how to hear a jingle on a TV commercial and replicate the melody on
piano. He began writing his own tunes while still in elementary
school. Years later, after picking up the acoustic guitar and learning
a batch of country songs, a teenaged Fullbright talked his way into a weekly gig at a restaurant in Okemah, where he played cover tunes for tips and free catfish.
“I would start at 7:00 and sing until my voice went out,” he
remembers. “It would take four hours sometimes, just singing these country tunes and a few rock songs where I’d have to scream. If you scream into a microphone long enough, you’ll figure out your strengths and your limitations pretty fast. That’s all I did that summer, and that’s how I found my singing voice. It was the summer of screaming.”
Fullbright certainly screams on From The Ground Up. He also croons, slurs, sneers and hollers, attacking the louder songs with the fire-and-brimstone delivery of a Southern preacher and singing the piano ballads in a frank, conversational baritone. It’s a rootsy, greasy, blue-collar sound, one that that falls under the broad
umbrella of Americana, but Fullbright’s songwriting is more specific than that term allows. He veers between Bible-beating gospel, midwestern folk, roadhouse country-blues and old-school rock and roll, performing some songs as a solo singer-songwriter and kicking up dust
with a full band on the others. Justin Townes Earle and Ryan Bingham do something similar, but Fullbright doesn’t really sound like them. He just sounds like Fullbright.
“I first saw him play at a tiny bar in downtown Norman, right by the
college,” Sharon remembers. “There were about five people there. I didn’t know him, and I remember thinking, ‘That can’t possibly be the guitar this guy owns. I think it was a shitty Seagull or something. He
had a tiny P.A., too. Everything about the performance sounded so much better than what it appeared to be, though. He just killed it. He’d do a cover of a Bob Dylan song or a Steve Earle song, and it didn’t even sound like that other person had ever played it. And on top of it all, he looked like he was about 15. It was mind boggling. This little kid was up there owning the stage.”
When the Turnpike Troubadours headed to Sharon’s studio several months later to record their second album, Diamonds & Gasoline, Fullbright was brought in to do some accordion overdubs. He and Sharon began hitting it off during smoke breaks, becoming fast friends and fans of each other’s work. Years of playing alone – in restaurants, dives, college bars, festivals, front porches, living rooms – had made Fullbright a self-contained player, able to rustle up the energy of a larger lineup without actually adding anyone else to the band. He could play piano, guitar, harmonica and accordion. He could sing. He could write. Sharon was used to recording full bands, but this guy was something else: a one-stop shop of full-bodied, rustic American music, performed by someone who’d actually spent time in the rural countrysides that his songs evoked.
“If you watch him play guitar,” Sharon explains, “you can see his thumb doing the bass parts, and the whole thing sounds exactly the way he wants it to. Even when he’s playing alone, you listen to what he’s doing and think, “That’s where the kick drum goes, and that’s where the snare drum goes.” The first time he sat down with me and played all of his songs, I could see every instrument. It was all there. It was a very visual thing.”
For Fullbright, it was more of a practical thing. “When I’m writing a song,” he says, “I want to make sure I can pull it off myself. Is it as good as it can be, with just me? Once that’s answered, you can start adding things. When you play those solo shows, though, it’s all about filling up a room. It’s all about making the song percussive enough, or making the bass move around in an interesting way.”
As the producer of From The Ground Up, Wes Sharon was charged with the task of keeping Fullbright’s music simple and uncluttered, while still turning the tunes into something a full band could sink its teeth into. He wasn’t the first person to give the job a shot. Fullbright had already recorded a similar version of the album in Austin, using A-list session players like JJ Johnson, who’d previously drummed for John Mayer, and several members of the Dixie Chicks’ touring band. Everything sounded great … but something was off.
“The playing was incredible,” Sharon admits, “but it sounded like an Austin record, like Lucinda Williams or something. John was singing about the town he’s from and the people he knows, but the whole thing just sounded like he was from somewhere else.”
Turning to his new friend for help, Fullbright scrapped the Austin recordings and booked two days at Sharon’s studio. The plan was to record some demos with a loose group of Oklahoma musicians, including Turnpike Troubadours drummer Giovanni “Nooch” Carnuccio III, and shop them around to various labels. The band worked fast, cutting live versions of “Losing,” “Jericho” and “All The Time In The World” in a handful of quick, inspired takes. Fullbright would stand in the doorway of the control room, run through a song’s verse and chorus with the others, then duck back into the vocal booth for a full run-through. Overdubs were rare.
Two days later, the group sat down to listen to the rough mixes. “Man, these demos sound good!” said Fullbright. “Well, let’s just stop calling them demos,” suggested Sharon. Fullbright agreed, more studio time was booked, and From The Ground Up was finished two and a half weeks later.
Interviews make Fullbright uncomfortable. He’s polite and charming, but you can tell he doesn’t enjoy talking about himself … and he enjoys talking about his songs even less. Interviewers always seem to ask the same questions. What’s it like growing up near Woody Guthrie’s home? How does he feel about the Grammy nomination? What’s up with all the religious imagery on the album? Does he consider himself an “old soul?”
“I don’t even know what that phrase means!” he says with a trace of exasperation. “Are there new souls, too?”
He prefers answering tough questions over email, saying he’s better on paper. Fullbright is best on record, though, and From The Ground Up functions as a sort of poetic autobiography, its songs full of richly colored stories about his life, his relationships and his home. Released in 2012 – the year Americana became the new pop, its torch carried by multi-platinum bands with chart-topping albums and million dollar recording budgets – Fullbright’s album was raw and imperfect, two adjectives that are rapidly disappearing from the modern-day folk canon. From The Ground Up isn’t a traditional sounding album by any means, but it was recorded for the price of a used car, and its flaws – a vocal tic here, an unintentional blast of feedback there – keep it honest. This is what folk music used to be. This is what folk music needs to be.
There’s room to grow, of course.
“There are some songs that aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be,” he allows. “They’re a little vague, and I’m trying to get out of that, because I think people tend to hide behind their vagueness to help preserve their hipness. I don’t wanna do that. If I’m using your time to tell you something that I think, then I want to make sure you know what it is, instead of just throwing some vague concept up in the air and seeing where it lands.”
He’s getting there. Fullbright says the next album won’t deal with so many religious themes, and Sharon points to Ground Up’s pair of lush, layered songs – “Daydreamer” and “Gawd Above,” both written in the studio – as a good indication of the sound Fullbright may explore next. Before that happens, though, there are more shows to play and more stories to be told, including the one about an Oklahoma kid who wrote some songs on his family’s piano, recorded an album with his local friends and wound up touring the country, armed with a Grammy nod and a fanbase that extended far past the Bible Belt.
“I’m proud as hell of our album’s story,” he says. “I don’t know if we were trying to make a statement. We were just poor. We did what we could because we had no goddamn money, and now it’s nominated with all those other albums. Winning a Grammy doesn’t mean anything – it’s just something you can wear, like a gold necklace – but the story behind it is something I’m proud of. It was a bunch of Oklahoma musicians at this little hole-in-the-wall in northern Oklahoma, just local guys hanging out, and it turned out the way it did. I would feel the same about this record if nobody heard it. But I’m glad they did.”