TERRY GROSS, HOST:
John Fullbright is an Oklahoma singer/songwriter in his early 20s who's just released his first studio album called "From the Ground Up." Raised in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, Fullbright has been the opening act for performers as various as Jimmy Webb and Joe Ely, and our rock critic Ken Tucker says he's more than ready for headliner status.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME WANTING YOU")
JOHN FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) This is not reflection. Reflection is true. This is just me, me wanting you. Sweet silver memories...
KEN TUCKER: John Fullbright's voice rises up and around the guitar chords on that song, "Me Wanting You," his tone intended to haunt the person he's addressing. His desire, his me wanting you, is as direct as he can possibly make it. It's not a cry of despair or hope or lust, it's the sound of someone intent on making as strong a connection with the listener as he possibly can.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAWD ABOVE")
FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Six long days, seven day he rested. Said there's one sure way humans can be bested. Give them wine and song, fire and lust. When it all goes wrong I'm the man to trust. And now you're all my own, all mine together. Well, you sing my praise, sing my name forever. I am gawd above, lord gawd almighty.
TUCKER: For a guy who's not yet 25 years old, Fullbright sounds as though he's lived through a lot, or at least thought it through. Speaking in the voice of God as he does on that song called "Gawd Above," Fullbright doesn't seem like a callow youth overreaching for profundity.
Here and on other songs on the appropriately titled "From the Ground Up," Fullbright is building the foundation for his method: acoustic guitar and piano, mostly, with vocals that are conversationally inflected whenever they don't build into a strangled yowl. And occasionally, he'll work an actual hook into a song if it doesn't strike him as unseemly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) Old man broke down on the side of the road. Stop and see if maybe I can lighten his load. Well, he opened the door and he thanked me in kind. Told me the words that would open my mind. He said don't worry about gasoline because we're moving. Don't worry about the TV screen 'cause we're moving. Don't worry about the bombs that fall 'cause we're moving. Don't worry about nothing at all 'cause we're moving.
TUCKER: The limitation of sparsely arranged material like this is that it can rely too heavily on words, lyrics that don't hold up to close philosophical or metrical scrutiny. There's a bit of that here, most notably in Fullbright's game but thin variation on early-period Randy Newman, called "Fat Man."
And, speaking of Randy Newman, Fullbright could use more humor. But there's no doubt that he's an up-and-comer moving in the right direction; it's a good sign when you get 11 cuts into an album and the quality remains high, as it does with "Daydreamer."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYDREAMER")
FULLBRIGHT: (Singing) You men spend a lot of time looking down at the ground. Looking down when they pray. Looking down every day. Dreamers know that the finer things wait up in the air. But young men are proud; sometimes dreaming ain't allowed. Dreaming...
TUCKER: There's an unassuming sureness to John Fullbright's best songs. He's an Oklahoma kid who's not pushing his Okie authenticity down your ears. Instead, he already knows how to pull back, to establish a mood and then fill it in with details, both verbal and musical, that draw you into his world, and make you momentarily forget your own.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed John Fullbright's new album "From the Ground Up." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org.
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