John Fullbright was the best songwriter in the world. Then he disappeared for eight years.
Let’s put that eight years in perspective. In the film Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays a man stranded on a desert island for four years. In that time, he grows a monster beard, makes fire, and becomes best friends with a volleyball. When he gets home, he discovers that he’s been declared dead and that the love of his life ultimately married someone else and had a daughter. In the fictional world of Cast Away, in other words, a person vanishing for four years is tantamount to them no longer existing as a part of the world. Imagine, then, what eight years of absence can do.
The last time we heard from John Fullbright, at least as a recording artist, he was a 26-year-old up-and-comer promoting one of the buzziest song-forward albums of the 2010s. The record in question, 2014’s Songs, was Fullbright’s second full-length, and his apparent masterpiece. The title, so simple but so apt, spoke to the type of performer he was. Rather than try to give the album extra significance with some profound title, Fullbright gave the album the plainest name possible and let the content speak for itself. It did: Songs was one of the richest and most potent albums of its era, crammed top to bottom with gorgeous, aching, heartbreaking, life-affirming songs about life and love and death and rain. The first time I heard the album, I pegged Fullbright as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and I pegged Songs as a collection of songwriting right on par with what Jason Isbell had delivered a year earlier with Southeastern.
Of course, we all know what happened there. Isbell released three subsequent albums, became Americana’s foremost hero, and ascended to the type of superstar status that can sell out eight nights in a row at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Fullbright, meanwhile, vanished into thin air. Beyond a few appearances here and there working on records from other Americana torchbearers – he co-wrote “Pay No Rent” from the 2017 Turnpike Troubadours record and produced American Aquarium’s 2018 LP Things Change – Fullbright might as well have been just like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, stranded on a desert island and discovering the mystical secrets of fire creation and volleyball personhood.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Fullbright said when asked why it took him so long to make a follow-up to the acclaimed Songs. “And that’s been the scariest question to think about and the hardest one to answer.” That’s not to say Fullbright wasn’t making or thinking about music for the duration of his songwriting and recording sabbatical. Press materials for The Liar, Fullbright’s long-awaited third LP, shed some light on what he’s been up to for the past eight years, and it sounds like a lot of that time was spent playing the piano for other artists. After moving from his rural hometown of Bearden, Oklahoma to the big city of Tulsa, Fullbright reportedly dedicated himself wholeheartedly to finding where he could fit amidst the town’s vibrant music scene. Sometimes, he fit in as a bandleader, but just as often, he found himself playing as a sideman. He described the experience as “a process of learning how to be in a community of musicians and less focusing on the lone, depressed songwriter.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that, when Fullbright finally decided to head back into the studio and cut an album of original material with his name on the cover, the songs that hit the tape were driven more by a loose, full-band feel than by the solo troubadour atmosphere that hung over Songs. Not that Fullbright the songwriter is hiding his gifts behind other musicians on this album: Just like last time, the very first song on The Liar is a song about writing songs. “This chord progression is my favorite/’Cause it always resolves,” Fullbright sings on the track, called “Bearden, 1645,” with a wink of his trademark wryness in his voice. The song starts as a piano-led solo track, but it blooms halfway through into a full-band rave-up that carries the same dusty immediacy of Isbell’s recent records with The 400 Unit. “Sometimes I try something different,” Fullbright sings as the band barrels in – a chef’s kiss moment on an album full of them.
One of the things that made Songs great was how much focus that album put on…well, on the songs. A track like “All That You Know” didn’t need anything but Fullbright’s voice and a keyboard, because the hymnlike structure of the lyrics and the power of Fullbright’s voice were so riveting just on their own. While The Liar gives a bit more spotlight to the players – see, for instance, the staggering slide guitar solo offered up by Oklahoma legend Jesse Aycock on lead single “Paranoid Heart,” or the saloon-ready stomp of “Poster Child” – the looseness of the performances ultimately only serves to give Fullbright’s songs and voice more power. Fullbright was always an emotional singer, but we’ve never heard him snarl quite like he does on “Poster Child,” or crack a mid-song smile quite like he does on the title track, as he prays for a much-needed stiff drink.
Even with the band egging him on and pushing him toward new comfort zones and emotional palettes, though, there’s still nothing quite like hearing Fullbright howl at the moon over nothing but piano. That only happens once on The Liar, but when it does, the results are so staggering that they’ll stop you in your tracks. The song in question, called “Stars,” is one of the most beautiful expressions I have ever heard of a crisis of faith. “I’ve seen stars before,” Fullbright intones on the first verse. “I’ve looked up and felt empty/I’ve looked up and felt nothing/I’ve looked up and felt sorrow like I was alone.” I won’t give away what happens next, but the way Fullbright lets the words and the melody pour out of him is a reminder of how much music can mean to the people who make it their livelihood. After spending half a decade thinking I’d never hear another John Fullbright record, one listen to “Stars” was enough to assure me that he’ll always wander back to us eventually. No one can sing like that and then simply walk away from the game, because you can only sing like that if your whole damn life depends on it.
Welcome back from the desert island, John; we missed you.