LOVE AND MERCY
TO THE FIREBRAND
Interview with CHRIS FULLERTON by Beky Hayes
It’s not every
day in the rock swamp that I come across a young talent with an
old soul, driven purely by the music in his blood, ungoaded
by pop star delusions or a general aversion to “work”… and I mean
DRIVEN, to produce, independently and consistently. Just a few
years into his legal drinking career, this rambling Blackfoot
Polish Yankee-billy has racked up albums of original songs like other 20-somethings
rack up debt.
the land of the ice and snow, he landed on my porch by circumstantial
coincidence and sold me a slim bottle of sasparilla fizzing with
a fearless humility and love of life. The deal-sealer was the
voice that mushroomed out of that bottle like a genie smacking
me upside the head with the depth and authority of Johnny Cash
and then a seasoned sympathy a la Willie Nelson. On the subject
of country music, I can’t say I know jack. But I can say that
what this kid has done goes beyond “country” and way beyond okay.
So I took a chance on helping him get situated in Austin, where
he just had to be. He’s here to rock, and he wants to meet you
all!>Please allow me to introduce Chris Fullerton.
Let’s start with a where-ya-been and
what brought you to Austin. We’re both Yanks who’ve bounced around
the country, so I could guess the reasons you high-tailed it down
here… but let’s hear your story.
I grew up in Camden Country, New Jersey, which
is on the other side of the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges
heading into Philadelphia. It
was a pretty good mixture of townies and city folk all piled in
one area. Luckily, I got to see other places during the summer
as my mother has six brothers and sisters. We would go to San
Antonio, Denton, Charlottesville and Savannah areas often. My parents named me after St. Christopher which
was a pretty good preface for all the travelling I would be doing
with my life.
I left New
Jersey young and crossed the bridge to Philadelphia. From there
I shot down for a stint in St. Augustine. I went back up to Philadelphia
to see some friends for the holidays one year and had no ride
or real desire to go back to Florida. A friend of mine was living
up in Cambridge so I figured I'd go crash with him up there. From
there I met a gal who lived in Providence. Busking on the street
in Cambridge started to wear on me a little bit so I went down
there and crashed with her. I met a lot of amazing people there
and played a lot of great shows. I was confident that I was ready
to come play in Texas.
We came down
to Austin and she decided she would be better off making art in
New York City. I left her in Brooklyn and made my way back to
Cambridge. I had some friends up there really starting to make
things happen with their music and they said they had some paying
gigs for me. I got engaged [and unengaged],I
had a job, had a fan base and great friends for those three years.
But I wasn't here. I needed to be in Austin. So as of less than
a month ago, here I am! That pretty much sums up the road to here,
leaving out all the cities I stayed in only for a month or so.
But what was it about Austin that lured you away from all that?
Why did you need to be here, as opposed to a place where you were
I came down here
and fell in love with the place, and I'm drawn to specific musicians
who live and play here. I know that I can be inspired and see good
country music any night of the week in Austin. I love the way it
looks and feels here and the people are incredibly sweet. Being
down here makes me feel like writing and that is what's most important
to me. I think I'll be here a long time.
> And what
did you leave in your wake? What did you do to Beantown??
In my wake
I left hundreds of amazing friends. If I didn't have a gig at
night I was usually getting drunk around a grill with some of
my favorite songwriters. I worked in a cafe where I made a lot
of connections in a lot of different scenes. I met most of the
other players in my band that way. We were really fortunate to
be so well liked. We had the market cornered up there for traditional
country and western swing. I look forward to the next time I can
go up there and play at the Cantab,
Toad or the Plough and Stars.
It looks like you had a real snappy gang of players there, with
the Chupacabras --that sax player charmed the pants offa me. Tell
me about those guys.
Well, in that case I should start with Michael. Me and him started the group up there. It was just the two
of us for a while. Michael Padgett is an insanely good sax player, expert whistler, singer,
percussionist, etc. etc. He's got perfect pitch and always came
up with harmonies that I never had to second guess. Him
and his girlfriend Gretchen took me in for a couple months before
I came down here when things were pretty rough.
Tim is a great drummer and cake decorator. Oddly enough, he worked
really well for us because he hadn't played this sort of music
before. He can copy things to a T so I could just play him a record
or Michael could just play a beat and say do this and it'd be
Ian is an extremely enthusiastic pedal steel player. He's always
looking to up his game somehow and practices non-stop. We are
huge on a lot of the same old recordings. He left for San Fran
about the same time I came to Austin. He has a real person job
out there so hopefully he can afford to fly here and play with
Bryan Murphy played most of our shows towards the end with us.
He is an incredible singer and trumpet player. He was probably
my oldest friend up there. If I start talking about him I'll go
on forever. Check out his band The Shills.
Carlton James came up from Virginia to sing and play harmonica
with us. Check out his music.
When did you start playing, and what forces around you defined
your musical persona?
I was around 7 years old when I first started playing. My grandfather
sat me down and put on the "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"
record by Hank Williams. That is the first song I ever remember
hearing and the first song he and my mom taught me on the guitar.
Everyone on that side of my family plays country music in some
form or another. We would visit my great Aunts house once a year
in Maryland and have these huge family picking parties. Those
times really stick out in my mind and I still play a lot of those
old soldier songs and hymns we used to do back then. Aside from
family I would say that the road, women, booze and friends have
shaped my songwriting more than anything.
> While so many
artists burn out and bands fall apart due to creative stagnation
or lack of commercial momentum, how do you explain having accomplished
so much already? Do you have to discipline yourself to write constantly,
or is it like a case of cooties that you just have to keep scratching?
I've just never been able to stop writing. I might go a day
without coming up with something good. I might go a week. I've
got such a backlog of songs from so many years that I am really
proud. That to me is proof that something good is always coming.
> But where do
your songs come from? Are they more about your internal reactions
to life, or are they influenced by stories or incidents that just
grab your interest for some reason?
Not to sound
too typical but my songs come from everywhere. I'll shut off an
album real quick if someone just keeps going on with "me,
me, me" songs, so I try not to do that. I like to mix it
up. I've seen a lot and have a lot to tell about. Everyone
loves a good story song. You'll drive yourself crazy only thinking
about your emotions all the time. There's a whole other world
Your first album, Six Songs of Labor, really impressed
me as the work of a seasoned artist -- but you were only 20 years
old when you wrote and recorded it? Can you give me a summary
of your following albums and what kind of themes emerge with each
one, and how that might reflect on where you were at in your life
at the time?
out Six Songs of Labor I went on to try to do something
more accessible lyrically and musically. I made an album called
Go On. It was a collection of country rock tunes I had
written while the Songs of Labor stuff was being pressed. I also
made one called Southern Dress around the same time. I
had started to get a lot of people recording me including myself
at that point. The next important ones were called Prince Street
and Hampshire Street. These include most of the songs
that I wrote to do with the Chupacabras
and is a pretty big shift in music. It's a lot of old style love
songs with a lot of swing. After that I did Broadside
Basement sessions with
Jay Berndt. We both covered one of the other’s
songs and I did one of his called The Ghost Of Hank Williams.
It was an honor to play next to him and that was probably the
most fun I've had recording.
I made a Christmas
album after, that I’m really proud of. There are two records
that are being mixed right now that I recorded right before I
left Cambridge. One is called No Girl and the other is
called Some Good Day. No Girl is a bunch of loner songs.
The other is a Gospel and drifting record. From what I've gotten
back so far they sound great and I can't wait to release them.
> The song on your first CD that stuck
with me was “Firebrand” – and I know there’s a story behind that
one. Tell it.
I think you are actually the first person who has ever asked
me that. Firebrand is a story about a guy named Longhair Jim.
He was the first "real" form of law in Forth Worth in
the late 1800s. Fort Worth had a real crazy red-light district
they referred to as Hell's Half Acre. You can imagine that sort
of place wouldn't breed the most honest law man. Lots of crooked
shit happened in his town. The song is about his last days.
On first impressions, with that first album, I’d call you a
firebrand of country music – a revolutionary, agitator of the
status quo! Not just that your song structure wanders way outside
the box, but some of your lyrics are kind of esoteric, like I’m
not sure exactly what the hell you’re talking about. What’s up
Esoteric is probably a good way to describe Six Songs Of Labor.
I wasn't trying to shut anybody out by writing the album that
way, I just wanted to do something that took classic country and
made it a little more raucous musically and open lyrically. Me
and the producer, Jay Berndt, had a pretty clear vision of what
we wanted going into it. That said, the rest of my material is
pretty straight forward.
All bullshit aside, welcome to Austin. Do you think your new surroundings
will spark a different color of flame in your next album?
Thank you! I'm amped to finally be in the place I want to be and
to start doing the things I want to do. My surroundings have always
had the largest amount of influence over my music so there is
no doubt that the next album will feel how I feel here.
And what do you hope to bring to a town already full of musicians
scrapping for a living?
I hope to add even more good music to a town that kind of has
a monopoly on it already. I'll just be adding something new to
the mix. I look forward to going out and seeing those musicians
scrapping for a living and succeeding every night!
> So what about
that: in your first couple weeks here have you seen any local
acts that you’d say are succeeding, or should be?
I'm a huge Dale Watson fan so it's nice to be able to see him
fairly often. Some others of course are Alvin Crow, Redd
Volkaert and James Hand. I was blown
away by a group called Dad Jim as well. I think they are going
to do great things.
> Where do you
see yourself playing in the next month? the<
I'd like to start booking gigs at smaller places around town for
the next few months, maybe opening up for other people while I
get an Austin fan base. Then who knows. I'd really love to play
the Continental and Ginny's.
you re-create the Chupacabras?
In a perfect world I would be able to create enough of a buzz
here and get some paying gigs so those guys can come down and
play. They'll always have the Chupacabras name so I guess if I throw something new together
we'll just have to call it something else.
Correspondence is welcome and Chris is
happy to send people tracks anytime: