A year later, Oklahoma singer and songwriter John Fullbright still comes to just one conclusion about his unlikely Grammy Award nomination for his self-released 2012 debut album “From the Ground Up,” which found itself singled out alongside heavyweights in the Americana field including Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers and the woman who won, Bonnie Raitt.
“I still sort of consider it a mistake,” he said with a chuckle by phone from his base of operations in Norman, Okla., about an hour’s ride from the even smaller town of Bearden, where he was born. “But I’m happy they made it.”
The whirlwind of activity and attention that nomination generated for Fullbright, 26, subjected him to “a baptism by fire — I hate to use clichés, but that’s absolutely what it was,” but nonetheless left him “better prepared this time.”
That’s a reference to Tuesday's release of his sophomore album, “Songs.” It is already collecting over-the-top accolades from points as disparate as the Wall Street Journal, which praised the album’s “clarity and simmering intensity” and American Songwriter magazine, which likens it to Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” suggesting that years from now, “'Songs’ could take its place in that very same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces.”
The simplicity of the album’s title is a harbinger of what it contains — songs impressively and potently economical, mostly stripped back to poetically astute lyrics and heart-rending musical feeling.
“Tell me what’s so bad about happy?” he asks in the opening track, “Happy.” In “Keeping Hope Alive,” he triggers a world of emotions in a brief couplet: “Pride and pain/Cloud my brain.” And in “Until You Were Gone,” he captures the rude awakening about a romantic parting: “I didn’t know about silence/Until you were gone.”
His songs have earned plaudits from esteemed musicians including Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Rodney Crowell, Mary Gauthier and country star Miranda Lambert.
“I am totally obsessed with John Fullbright right now,” Lambert said in a recent interview about her own forthcoming album. “Leave it to John to come up with a genius title like ‘Songs.’”
He also caught the ears of the makers of “August: Osage County,” the 2013 film based on Tracy Letts’ play set in Oklahoma that included his “Gawd Above” on the soundtrack, where he’s in the company of Eric Clapton, Bon Iver, Kings of Leon and Gustavo Santaolalla.
Of the new album’s no-frills title, Fullbright explained, “I’m bad at titling anything. I can’t name a song. I can’t even name a cat. I’m just bad at it. … But it’s a little tongue-in-cheek calling it that. What I’m saying is, ‘Cull what you will from these songs, don’t let me steer you in any one direction.’ I want people to come to this with absolutely no expectations and make their own decisions about what it is.”
Much of “Songs” revolves around lost love, and the self-recrimination, self-absorption, self-examination and, sometimes, self-absolution that can come in its wake.
For Fullbright, who was classically trained as a pianist through much of his childhood and teen years spent in Okemah, the birthplace of Woody Guthrie, all those reactions are just launch points for his primary goal of relating to anyone who might be listening.
“I’m not going to pull up my diary and start reading passages about all my woes and troubles,” said Fullbright, who will appear at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on June 30. “I’d rather that give way to something that somebody is going to connect with, something that pulls them up a bit. The world is full of really sad songs. I love them, and I play them, but I try not to write them anymore.”
“Going Home” sidesteps the finger-pointing that’s all too common in love-gone-wrong songs in Fullbright’s pared-to-the-bone expository: “I met love. Love met me/And we agreed to disagree/The rain stopped falling/I’m coming home.”
In “Happy,” it’s reconciliation, not retribution, he’s after when he sings: “I don’t want to have another friend/I don’t want to wonder how your life has been/I just want to set things straight/Apologize to you and somebody/Tell me what’s so bad about happy?”
“If I’m really blue, or in a really tough spot,” he said, “I tend to write my happiest songs, ‘Happy’ being a good example. ‘Moving,’ the song from the last record, I remember writing that from not the brightest place. That’s where I go. That’s what music is to me, that’s what it’s for.”
Songwriting, he said, “is such a strange mix of ego and the lack thereof. That’s the real fine line. You can learn the craft, and master it, but in the end it’s about learning about yourself, your mistakes, your limitations. Then the impossible task is trying to make everybody else feel that way too.
“That’s the part--that’s where your philosophy comes out about the way people work, the way things are, or aren’t, or the way they could or should be.
“There’s so much in a little song, there’s such big things in these little four-minute songs,” he said. “It’s my favorite medium for sure.”