jd mcpherson

Just ‘Roll’ with it: JD McPherson returns to Oklahoma with new album in tow
For The Oklahoman / NewsOK

By Nathan Poppe

There’s a mobility in perception about Broken Arrow artist JD McPherson that evades explanation.

The onion skin is basic, essential throwback rock ’n’ roll, a partial assessment that leads diehard rockabilly fans and unresearched reporters alike to see McPherson as, in his words, “all poodle skirts and leather jackets.”

And ultimately, I guess, there’s no real harm in taking the sock hop version of McPherson at face value if that’s all you’re looking for. But there’s more to him than that.

Whatever it is, it’s why he and his band have jumped from opening for neo-country star Eric Church in April to a string of late-May dates with Robert Plant. It’s a timelessness coupled with experimentation that’s captured the ears of NPR, David Letterman, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone. It’s taken McPherson from an invitation to play with Queens of the Stone Age last fall to a headlining slot at Guthrie’s Queen of the Prairie Festival.

“Maybe people sort of see the patina of somebody who’s been committed to something for a long time and also maybe isn’t trying to treat it as a Civil War re-enactment,” McPherson said. “It’s being treated with some kind of dignity and as a living, breathing, functioning thing. Just trying to do something maybe a little different with it. I’m really not sure.”

On the record

McPherson’s debut album “Signs and Signifiers” was released first in 2010 on bandmate Jimmy Sutton’s Hi-Style Records (Sutton also produced) and then widely redistributed by Rounder Records in 2012. It is a surefire good-time album, heavily rooted in ’50s R&B but with glimmers of experimentation, in inspiration, in instrumentation and in a tight lyricism — with meaning — that’s easy to overlook if you’re just trying to have a good time.

“Let the Good Times Roll,” released in February, is the other side of the coin. According to McPherson, “Every aspect of this record is different in every possible way than the first time around.”

Notably, the new album features production from Mark Neill (The Black Keys, Old 97’s) and includes McPherson’s longtime touring band (bassist Sutton, drummer Jason Smay, pianist Ray Jacildo and saxophonist/guitarist Doug Corcoran) performing the instrumentation.

McPherson said about the studio experience, “I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t lifted the thing and placed it squarely on my own shoulders. But I do know the band very well, and it was wonderful to be able to put some trust in some people.”

That trust didn’t materialize easily, as McPherson notes he was hesitant to bring his new batch of songs to the table.

“I’ll just be honest; I was in a really paranoid place with these new songs,” he said. “I didn’t show the songs to anyone until we got to the studio. It was a strange journey, and difficult.”

Why, with McPherson apparently at the top of his game and surrounded by his own band, would recording these songs be any harder than the last go-round?

“That’s a controversial question, but let’s just say I had some very personal things to say, and I needed to do it in a sort of ‘plant my flag in the ground’ way,” McPherson said.

“I needed to assert myself. I had some songs that were a direct product of a couple of hard things I’d gone through, and I needed to have control. I needed to wrangle control.”

There are multiple biting lines on the record, like, “Did you win a black ribbon for breaking hearts?” from “Bossy” and “I was shaky from the day that I started to walk / I carry such a heavy load” from “Shy Boy.” Then there’s the Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) co-write, the gently heartbreaking “Bridgebuilder” — “Wading in shadows and old merry times / I fear I may sink to the bottom.”

The album benefits from the ebb and flow of rock beats with moments of anticipation … weariness and energy, everything in its right place.

“Let the Good Times Roll” is still in some ways a feel-good record — “It Shook Me Up” and the title track in particular — but it is, as McPherson said, vastly different from its predecessor in so many ways, and ironically titled, to boot.

“It is absolutely,” McPherson said. “Almost no one gets that.”

Show me some ID

Despite the hard knocks during the production of “Let the Good Times Roll,” it’s a bold step forward, a statement album not just for McPherson in the studio but in the broader terms of what JD McPherson is or, more easily identifiably, what he is not.

Yet I don’t actually detect any fear of artistic misunderstanding from McPherson, whose interviews in recent months have contained everything from being laid off from his teaching job to tales of songwriting inspiration drawn from “Frasier” episodes to him admitting he likes listening to his own album.

“Nine times out of 10, they’re the same questions,” McPherson said, “but there’s a repository of things I haven’t revealed and probably never will. If people aren’t picking up on things, that’s probably my fault … and also kind of a relief.”

Perhaps all of that contributes to the indefinable-ness of JD McPherson, in a way — the not knowing what the mystery is, or not quite being able to tell if there is one. It’s a rock ’n’ roller who loses his cool in front of his idols. It’s not expecting to hear the hard truth from a nice guy. It’s the complex reality of letting the good times roll.

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john moreland

This Land is Moreland’s
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC

artwork by Todd Pendleton for The Oklahoman
artwork by Todd Pendleton for The Oklahoman

“This is a record about home. Whatever that is.”

The dedication in the liner notes of Tulsa songwriter John Moreland’s new album is a fitting introduction. “High on Tulsa Heat” was mostly recorded on a whim in a few days in July 2014 at Moreland’s parents’ Bixby home, while they were on vacation.

Produced by Moreland, with engineering and instrumental assistance from fellow Tulsans John Calvin Abney and Jared Tyler, the record is filled with pop rock, Petty-esque gems cut with plaintive ballads, ruminations on being lovesick, loneliness and, above all, the idea of home.

The concept of home is something he’s explored before, a bit more subtly. A line in “Your Spell,” from 2013’s “In the Throes,” lilts, “We knew emptiness like a panhandle road.” And then there’s the title track from 2008’s “Endless Oklahoma Sky,” a line repeated on “Tulsa Heat’s” “Cleveland County Blues.”

“It gets weird after a while. You can’t do that forever, and I need some balance,” Moreland said. “But I’ve been off for a while, and even just driving to SXSW (in Austin, Texas, in March) felt really good. Just getting out of town and driving down the highway, listening to ‘Exile on Main Street.’”

 

Choice words

Upon the release of “High on Tulsa Heat” Tuesday, Moreland will once again pack up for sometimes-greener pastures, with tour dates booked nationwide through the summer. And when he does, crowds can expect the same gravity, the same pin-drop silence that has marked many of Moreland’s recent performances.

“I think I want the words to be the focus,” Moreland said. “I don’t think I’m a very good guitar player; I can’t do anything flashy to grab people’s attention. I would rather the words do that.”

Moreland isn’t a traditional front man and doesn’t seem terribly interested in putting on a show. Instead, he’s a heartbreaker of a different color, possessed of the gift of articulation — whittling the weight of despair, lost love or homesickness into a few choice words.

“I write a ton and then figure out what doesn’t need to be there,” Moreland said. “I just take stuff out until I feel like it’s simple enough.”

The resulting sadness is pointed, palpable — and the assumption is often that all the sadness is his, and that the sadness is all he is. With lines like “I guess I got a taste for poison / I’ve given up on ever being well” from “Tulsa Heat” track “Cherokee,” it’s easy to see why his songs, as Moreland would say, bum people out.

But, as he’ll tell you himself, he’s not really that sad.

“Somebody started a ‘Cheer Up John Moreland’ Instagram account,” Moreland said. “And I think it’s funny, but it’s also like … man, I’m not really that sad. I don’t know what you think I’m like. That happens a lot.”

His friends know this about him, and many of their additions to the record — namely Abney’s late-night synthesizer riffs on “High on Tulsa Heat,” and Kierston White’s whiskey-laden background vocals on “Heart’s Too Heavy” — lift the record’s spirits in unexpected ways.

Hitting his stride

In tandem with this misapprehension about him being a bummer, Moreland agrees that in “real life,” he’s generally a private person. He also recognizes that this makes his career, his art, seem a bit counterintuitive.

“Being a songwriter is weird. You have to be introspective and maybe even self-loathing enough to write the songs, but then you have to be audacious enough to think that the songs you wrote are worth people’s attention,” Moreland said. “And people have asked me if it’s weird to sing this stuff in front of people, but it doesn’t feel weird. This is only context where I could say this stuff.”

He’s made a lifelong commitment to the outlet, though, with his earlier Tulsa bands rooted in hard-core and punk rock because of the same lyrical honesty. Moreland said, when I interviewed him in 2009 with his Black Gold Band, that he got into punk rock because of the “straight-ahead, good songs with no gimmicks,” where the words mean something.

Despite his earlier stabs at this style of song, it wasn’t until 2011’s “Earthbound Blues” that he feels he hit his stride.

“When I was writing for ‘Earthbound Blues,’ there was a moment where I knew I actively wanted to get better, and I was writing with that in mind,” Moreland said. “Everything I wrote before that, there’s a lot that makes me cringe, but nothing really since then. I’ve kept in mind that I want to be able to be proud of these songs down the road.”

Buying in

What lies ahead is the release of “High on Tulsa Heat,” where Moreland for the first time finds himself with a marketing team (Nashville’s acclaimed Thirty Tigers) and a booking agent, the latter a luxury he’s only enjoyed for a few weeks.

In that same 2009 interview, Moreland discussed the difficulty of booking after crossing over from punk rock into Americana — that, at first, people weren’t ready to buy in, forcing him to work all the harder to find his market with later records.

Having a team behind him, despite his success so far, is relatively new to Moreland, and while he’s learning to hand control over to people who are working in his interests, he hasn’t lost sight of the work he’s put in so far.

“I’m thankful that I came from this musical background where you learn how to do stuff with extremely limited resources. You do everything yourself that you possibly can. You don’t wait for a break; you just do it,” Moreland said. “I wouldn’t have a career if I hadn’t known how to do that. There was nobody on my team making calls or pulling strings for me for a really long time.”

Moreland wasn’t waiting for a break, but it appears that break may have finally come anyway, and the road ahead looks promising. And in the near future, he’ll be on that road constantly, likely earning plenty of fodder for future songs.

As he sings on “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars”: “I know this life will leave you cold and drive you mad / make you homesick for a home you never had.”

But after all the exploration, the heartache, the leaving and returning, Moreland seems poised to forever hang his hat in Tulsa.

“I think if you’re going to make a living going to strange and unfamiliar places,” Moreland said, “then it’s probably good to come back to the most familiar place on Earth. Tulsa’s just home.”

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justin timberlake

Concert Review: ‘The 20/20 Experience’ experience propels Justin Timberlake to the head of the pop pack
for The Oklahoman

by Nate Billings
by Nate Billings

Justin Timberlake’s context doesn’t do him any favors, but he doesn’t need them anyway.

For the under-20 set, Timberlake’s sordid boy band past is kept alive primarily by animated GIFs and Buzzfeed lists—and a sorely disappointing ‘N Sync reunion at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Those of us old enough to remember Timberlake 1.0—and I saw ‘N Sync at what was then Texas Stadium when I was in junior high—fully understand that by now, he’s grown into more than just the sum of his ramen noodle-haired, denim-on-denim predecessor’s parts: He’s a bona fide superstar, a rare breed. He’s mega-famous but likable, eloquent enough, funny and, critically, he’s not generationally stunted in his fan base. People’s grandparents know Justin Timberlake, and so do their youngest children. My dad likes him. The pair of teenage girls next to me said they flew 14 hours to OKC for this concert, from New Zealand.

So take the head boy out of the boy band, and drop him onstage years later surrounded by a highly capable band (lovingly referred to as the Tennessee Kids), an expensive light show and a slew of seductive songs, and in this case, you have what’s sort of an ideal, universal arena pop experience: He’s not garish and neon, nor especially youthful like Katy Perry. He isn’t confusing or kind of scary like Lady Gaga, not eye-rollingly begging you to like him like some weaker-than contestant on “The Voice” and not beyond human comprehension like Beyonce.

Instead, he’s a professional entertainer who happens to be attractive, able to sing while he’s dancing, charming and sexy—but also definitely on the clock. His cool isn’t effortless, but meticulously calculated. And in this environment, maybe that’s even cooler.

Timberlake, clad in a black suit but no tie, opened the show with “Pusher Love Girl,” from 2013’s “The 20/20 Experience,” a slow-burning introduction preceded by a lengthy video montage. He swiftly moved into “Rock Your Body,” the oppresively danceable ’70s-inspired hit from 2002’s “Justified,” the debut solo record that catapulted him into, at minimum, mainstream acceptance, and at most, tipped off the would-be dismissives that maybe there was something more important happening with Timberlake than factory vocal runs and five assembled dudes dancing in unison…though this show had plenty of the latter, too.

A trio of memorable tracks from 2006’s “Futuresex/Lovesounds” (a fearless record so geniusly crafted for its time that it turned a certain pop-cynical college student into a full-blown fan) followed, then a tough-as-nails live rendition of “TKO,” before a crowd address: “I see some girls that got their hair did. Dudes, you’re welcome. Don’t say I never did anything for you, single gentlemen.”

Set one closed with revenge track “Cry Me a River,” performed at, even by comparison to the rest of the show, an obscenely loud volume.

A brief intermission ended with “Only When I Walk Away,” then an impromptu Garth Brooks cover of “Friends in Low Places,” after which Timberlake labeled Brooks “the GOAT”—greatest of all time. The New Zealanders next to me had never heard the song, but the other 16,000-plus attendees confidently sang every note.

Later highlights include “Tunnel Vision,” which JT performed solo in front of a video of naked women, and “Let the Groove Get In,” a modern “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”-esque number during which Timberlake & co. rode on a moving platform stage clear to the other side of the arena.

Covers like “Heartbreak Hotel,” a nod to Timberlake’s Tennessee upbringing, and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” somehow paled in comparison to his own tracks, in the moment. That’s the thing about Justin Timberlake: Even his more recent singles seem immune to the ephemeral nature of pop songs. He’s inserted himself so seamlessly into the canon that the opening strain of a mindless, pointless drone of a song like “SexyBack” sends a crowd into a frenzy, excited to be a part of something we all already know. Even if that something isn’t very good.

Timberlake closed the show with “Mirrors,” probably the strongest track from both editions of “The 20/20 Experience,” a pseudo-ballad with swelling instrumentals and an inviting choice for a massive sing-along.

The 20/20 Experience World Tour was, I guess unsurprisingly, a get-what-you-pay-for ticket, and impressive from start to finish: a polished affair of a caliber that I haven’t seen from anyone in this genre, including a comparatively forgettable Timberlake himself, 15 years ago.

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michael buble

Concert Review: Canadian crooner Michael Buble’s “To Be Loved” tour melts hearts at Chesapeake Energy Arena
for The Oklahoman

There are musicians, and there are entertainers, and then there is Michael Buble, who stepped onto the stage at the Chesapeake Energy Arena Saturday night amidst a burst of actual flames during the opening strains of his take on Little Willie John’s “Fever.” And by stepped, I mean did a standing slide down a ramp, in a tuxedo, with building-sized graphics of fire behind him—without missing a note.

What felt at first like a bit of a gaudy throwback quickly humanized when, after the first song ended, Buble addressed the crowd: “I hope you liked that opening with the fire. I spent all of my money on that.” And then, with a smirk, “The rest of the show is s***.”

It wasn’t that, of course, though when your two-hour set is comprised of a guy in red carpet-level dress mostly just reaching far into the Great American Songbook, you have a bit of a can’t-miss.

That’s probably an accurate way to describe Buble, particularly in a live setting when given a chance to engage with his audience: He’s a can’t miss. It is exceedingly difficult to find something to not like about him, even if you try. And that’s curious, since Buble, while a capable vocalist, certainly wasn’t the best musician onstage last night. He’s funny, but he’s not an incendiary comedian, and he’s endearing but not overwhelmingly so.

What Buble has done somehow is touched on a magical combination of sweet and vulgar, down-home and—dare I say it—sexy, with measurable talent and a penchant for snazzy dress to boot. It’s a rare, old-world sort of charisma that he possesses and manipulates quite naturally. Against all odds, this Canadian nerd really does own the stage.

A handkerchief toss during “I’ve Got the World on a String” sent a small section of the first few rows into a feeding frenzy, just after the singer introduced each member of his band with a personalized “Team Buble” ESPN-style graphic on the big screen and a laugh-grabbing non sequitur like, “When I grow up, I want to be just like him: a big, sassy black dude.”

The singer’s renditions of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Nat King Cole’s “That’s All” followed and were concert highs, musically speaking. There were moments during those two songs in particular where the guy looking for the laugh disappeared, and in his place, a veteran performer just very, very seriously singing songs he clearly loves.

Those peaks were followed by an uncomfortable anachronism in a confusing rendition of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” during which Buble headed through the crowd to a secondary rear stage. From there, he performed classics “Who’s Loving You” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” accompanied by the tour’s supporting act, the a cappella performance group Naturally 7, whose crowd-pleasing earlier set included the most endearing version of a Coldplay song anyone has heard in years.

After performing his own hit “It’s a Beautiful Day,” Buble left the stage briefly, then returned and admitted he hates the ceremony of the staged encore. After a Drifters cover and an impromptu duet of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” with an adorable child plucked from the audience, Buble closed with Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” calling Russell a genius. He paused, asked the crowd to be quiet, and finished the song with no microphone, just a spotlight and hushed grand piano accompaniment. It was a pretty moment, though unfortunately out of place with the crowd and tone of the preceding show.

At one point, Buble professed his hope that, despite how cynical the world is, that people in the crowd could just escape for a little while. He said he does it all “for romance, for love,” and a palpable group swoon left thousands of ladies swatting cartoon hearts from around their heads and, thanks to a fluttery downpour during “All You Need Is Love,” leaving them alongside the confetti hearts on the floor.

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backstreet boys

Concert Review:
“In a World Like This” tour means Backstreet’s Back? … All right!
for The Oklahoman

The Backstreet Boys perform at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Friday, June 6, 2014. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

It is what it is, but better somehow.

Currently in their second year of the “In a World Like This” tour, in support of their studio album of the same name, the Backstreet Boys are showing their age, and Friday’s show at the Chesapeake Energy Arena was no exception.

The Boys became a performing group a whopping 21 years ago, and this probably puts your mind in an understandable place when thinking about what a concert of theirs must be like at this point in their career.

As 1990s boy bands go, the Backstreet Boys are the grandfathers of ’90s cheese pop. For context’s sake: I was 13 when the Backstreet Boys had their first platinum-selling single, “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart).” It was one year before Hanson’s “MmmBop” was released and two years before ’N Sync’s “I Want You Back” made it stateside.

I remember those songs, and if you were alive and around a radio or television in the late ’90s, you do too. You’d recognize the opening notes of “I Want it That Way,” and you’d find vaguely familiar the haunted house video for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” You remember those things, even if you don’t realize you do. Whether or not the average person remembers that stuff is irrelevant to the thousands of people in homemade T-shirts and newly purchased BSB gear who packed the ’Peake last night, however.

For an overwhelming majority of the crowd—and I’m putting the age and gender tally at about 90 percent women between 25 and 40 —seeing the Backstreet Boys is about reliving an experience with a band that changed their lives in some way: plastered their walls, cost them their allowance, gave them their first teen crush tears. For them, this is the concert equivalent of a high school reunion, replete with magical memories flooding back, intertwined with truly cringe-worthy moments.

They opened the show with “The Call” and “Don’t Want You Back,” from records released in 2000 and 1999, respectively. Predictably, the biggest hits got the biggest response. Older songs like “As Long As You Love Me” and “All I Have to Give” had everyone on their feet. File those under “magical memories.”

There was no point where the crowd was lukewarm, but the unfamiliarity of the guys feebly playing instruments and singing ballads written in the last few years elicited less raucous a response across the board.

Kevin Richardson asked if everyone wanted to “party like it’s 1999,” and at one point, resident bad boy (he has lots of tattoos) A.J. McLean asked the crowd who had purchased the group’s 2013 tour namesake record: “Oh. Well. That’s about half…I like it. I think it’s pretty good.”

One track from that album, “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of),” showcased what were certainly the best vocal performances of the night from everyone onstage, and the track was touchingly prefaced with a bit about fatherhood.

Here, I have to commend the Backstreet Boys for having a sense of humor about themselves. It probably takes a lot for men in their 40s to perform a 19-year-old song called “We’ve Got it Goin’ On.” With the tight-knit dance moves, angelic harmonies, terrible haircuts and—probably most importantly—insane record sales figures of 1999 all but gone, the Backstreet Boys are actually more endearing than ever, I think: funny and self-deprecating, quick to tease each other and fully aware of where they’ve been and where they hope to go.

A brief acoustic set in the middle of the show had Nick Carter again pleading with the crowd to give the new record a chance. After going into “Madeleine” with a voice crack on the first note, the whole group laughed at him, even while singing. Carter, beet red, finished the song by saying, “Well. Now you don’t want to buy the record.”

Carter also marveled at a “boy band playing instruments” and nodded to their collective realization that, to stay afloat, they all needed to learn to play because they’d eventually be too old to dance.

A vignette shown during a costume change previewed “Backstreet Boys — The Movie,” tentatively due later this year. For all the eye-rolling that revelation may have induced, the trailer was full of candid interview soundbites.

“Nobody tells you what to do when you get to the top,” says crowd favorite Brian Littrell.

“All we’re doing is keeping our heads above water,” says Carter.

The show closers were a few of BSB’s most memorable tracks and accidentally hilarious performances, including the iconic “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” BSB used much of the original choreography, and Carter made a point to find a camera to point at his groin on every mention of the word “sexual.” Behind him, a fan who paid for a VIP pit ticket held a handmade sign that read: “Nick: I’m not jailbait anymore.”

That’s…kind of weird, admittedly. There were plenty of “oh no” moments like that, but it all had the strange and unexpected feel of being in good fun. The whole ordeal seemed less an attempt to hold onto the past and more a celebration of it. These gentlemen, more dapper than ever even when randomly and frequently sleeveless throughout the show, still sent sections of the crowd into flurries of shrieks and hugs with a mere wink or wave, but without the inherent drama or tragedy of preteen idol love.

Even though one might expect it to seem forced, how it didn’t feel is like ’N Sync’s halfhearted 2013 reunion performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, or like Beyonce throwing the rest of Destiny’s Child a televised bone at last year’s Super Bowl. Maybe (and ironically) the Backstreet Boys are lucky in that they have no clear frontrunner in talent or looks, no runaway superstar. There is no MJ, no Timberlake … not even a Nick Jonas among their ranks to shake up the hierarchy.

They appeared, surprisingly and simply, to be a group of longtime friends and coworkers who still happen to enjoy what they do with impressive humility and only a modicum of embarrassment about their history, which — apparently— is a pretty good formula for longevity.

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john fullbright

A Man with a Simple Song
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC

As I walk into the coffee shop where John Fullbright and I have agreed to meet, I feel an intent stare coming from the minivan next to me. He beat me here, and when I look over to source the gaze, he breaks into a smile and waves hello.

I’m nervous.

For those of you in the back, Fullbright is something of an Okie wunderkind, a songwriter who, for some of us, seemed to leap overnight from membership in the Turnpike Troubadours and solo gigs at Libby’s Cafe in Goldsby to international recognition and, eventually, a much-talked-about Grammy nomination for 2012’s “From the Ground Up,” his first studio album.

Those accolades aren’t the source of my nerves, though. Fullbright has a bit of a reputation, particularly locally, for being reluctant to talk — not about his music, but about himself. While I’ve seen his professionalism in full effect in all sorts of places, including the Folk Alliance International Conference, South By Southwest and his own shows at the Blue Door, this is the first time I’ve put the spotlight on him.

Often, when talking to Oklahoma musicians, I tread the line between interested friend and biographer, reading articles from around the world written about people I know and asking questions I may already know the answers to. I am nervous, and I tell him as much.

He is patently aware of this. When I press record, he says, simply, “I’m going to use my interview voice.”

I inquire whether or not this reluctance is in the forefront of his mind when talking to media folks like me or, more often, of a higher ilk.

“Absolutely, but I don’t not tell the truth. I’ll tell a truth. A one-dimensional question gets a one-dimensional answer,” Fullbright says. “I give people all I got, all that I want to give ’em, but if one person from a local paper asks you a question, next thing you know, someone on NPR is taking that question to the next level. You have to be aware of what you’re saying now; someone’s going to bring it up later.”

And for those who prod further, past the songs, past the facts, past what he wants to give?

“I go, ‘I’m not going to go into my family history. We’re talking about music,’” Fullbright says. “Or when people ask, ‘Are you a Christian?’ and all that stuff. ‘We’re talking about these songs.’”

This is a conundrum for Fullbright, whose songs — including those on his upcoming album “Songs” — are clear enough and seemingly personal enough to be subjected to an autobiographical reading. I wonder aloud about the struggle to play close to the chest when your art and profession demand otherwise.

There’s a common theme around here about truth in songwriting. Canadian artist Scott Nolan sings the plight of the Oklahoma songwriter in his “Bad Liver/Broken Heart” with the plaintive line: “Doesn’t anybody care about truth anymore?/Maybe that’s what songs are for.” Okie John Moreland, in a nod to Nolan, echoes that plight in “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” saying, simply, “I guess truth is what songs are for.”

Fullbright, who notes that for him, songwriting has generally been a lonely task, decries this limitation in a different way on “Songs.” “Every time I try to write a song/I can’t seem to get a word in edgewise,” he sings on album opener “Happy.”

Fullbright puts forth that songs, “when they’re well-written, are about the listener,” but notes the obvious problem with that.

“Write a song that everyone can connect with, and suddenly everyone will start assuming that you know what you’re talking about. Ask me what ‘Jericho’ is about, and I can go line for line, and you’ll fall asleep. It’s the most boring story on Earth. But when you internalize it and make it about you, then it’s epic and exciting. That’s what songs are for.”

He explains further by paraphrasing a Shel Silverstein interview: “He said that when you write a song, you have to say everything that you mean, and it has to be interpreted exactly like you want it to be interpreted, and if it’s not, then you’re not doing it right, because you can’t chase someone down the street and say, ‘Now let me tell you what I really meant to say.’”

He’s lauded as a songwriter first, musician second. I’d categorize him as a sharp observer above all else, and keenly funny, despite an early NPR review of “From the Ground Up” that said he could “use more humor.”

If anything, he’s victim of the aforementioned local papers pigeonholing him with a swath of “Aw, shucks!” folk cliches: Yes, he’s from the same coupling of small towns that produced Woody Guthrie, and yes, he still lives there. Yes, he has an acoustic guitar, though for those who’ve seen him live, it’s inarguable that his piano playing is more impressive. One SXSW reviewer even called him milquetoast.

There’s a palpable absence of a cultivated image in Fullbright — and he is of course aware of this and of the limited perception that keeps that projected version of him alive. “If there’s a preconceived notion that I have to be some kind of Woody-head, then they’ll keep that about as long as it takes for them to come see a show and see that that is not the case,” Fullbright says.

The dark, racy video for his 2013 single “Gawd Above,” featuring Fullbright singing solo in a peep show confessional booth, may have been an answer to that as well.

“I just wanna be known for writing a clear, concise song,” Fullbright says. He goes on to say that experience is teaching him to whittle his songs down precisely to nothing more and nothing less than they should be.

“At the end of the day, I’m two years better than I was when that first record came out. In every way. Better singer, better writer, better guitar player, better piano player, better whistler,” Fullbright says. “I’m better at all kinds of stuff, and if the record doesn’t reflect that, then I’m not doing it right. That’s where the whole thing about stripping it down came from. This has to look like I’m better at this than I was before.”

And it does, I think. “Songs” is powerful in its simplicity, and it’s (theoretically) difficult to interpret his intent. But don’t get too attached. Apologies for using another folk cliche here, but he is an old soul. It’s difficult to remember he’s only in his mid-20s, only on his second studio record.

“Maybe once or twice a year, I’ll take a little stroll down memory lane because there are (older songs) I want to hear again,” Fullbright says. “But I’m looking ahead. I’ve got stuff to write and new experiences, and I’m not the same person I used to be. This new person’s gotta write all that down.”

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bacon jam

Bacon Jam
Written for and published in McSweeney’s Reviews of New Food.

Did you know that they make tiny slow cookers? I found this out because I am 29 and live by myself still, and I was waiting for a wedding registry to come into my life so I could get all new kitchen appliances, but then I got tired of waiting because I found out bacon jam was a thing that could exist.

It is basically like if you were going to make barbecue sauce, but then you replaced the ketchup in the recipe with bacon, and then you took out a bunch of the spices and put in more bacon. I made it today, in my tiny slow cooker, and I do not care anymore about wedding registries or family-sized kitchen appliances or finding love, because I cannot eat bacon jam on any of those things.

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an open letter to the oklahoma city thunder’s seventh man

An Open Letter to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Seventh Man
Originally submitted to McSweeney’s Open Letters. They didn’t publish it, but they did tell me they hope Nick and I live happily ever after.

Dear NBA Dreamboat of My Heart Nick Collison,

I am pretty sure that the most important things to look for when choosing your very first favorite professional athlete are not perfectly symmetrical cartoon beautiful head shape and whether or not he matches his shoes to his home and away jerseys. And when I say I am pretty sure of this, I mean that I am gleaning it from the eye rolls I receive when I talk about those things.

What I know about your college is that it is in a town very similar to mine, except yours has an Urban Outfitters. I know our team is surprisingly good and that our guys are on average too young to have publicly become bad people. That is important to me. From what I understand about basketball, you come off the bench and then large guys run into you a lot, which is a sacrifice you make for your teammates and not very glamorous but probably important. Maybe you have realized by now that I do not know a lot about sports. Don’t worry, because I do not feel like this is an obstacle for us.
Here is the thing, Nick: You are 31 years old, and I am 29 years old, and according to my mom, we are both “not getting any younger” (though I admit she has not said that about you specifically).

When I live tweet your sweet playoff dunks and nod knowingly when people ask if I saw your “screen” just then, it is because I love you. And when I try not to drop the f-bomb when my friends send me text messages that say you are at the same restaurant they are, it is because I am sure that it will happen for us, someday, and I need to play it cool for now.

You are the only Thunder player who does not tell me (us) on the Internet to “have a blessed day” and you also probably like the same things as me, which I can tell because you are so funny in your blog and so am I, and also you have the same taste in restaurants as everyone I know.

When my dad rolled his eyes and told me that the Spurs would knock your team out of the Playoffs, I pledged to disown him in a way that was much more dramatic than was probably necessary, but it was my birthday when he said it, and also it hurt my feelings.

Up-close basketball tickets are apparently very expensive, so I have not gotten a chance to express my feelings in person yet, but I feel confident that our time is coming. And when we hit it off, and I introduce you to my parents, my tiny Korean mom will be so excited that you are the tallest person in the world and also gainfully employed. (Head’s up: She will probably wish that you played tennis instead of basketball, but don’t worry. Sorry in advance, but if you know any other Korean moms then you know that this is totally normal.)

I don’t want to put a time limit on our potential love, but there are only so many times I can start a “COL-LI-SON!” chant in a bar before I am asked to leave because the game hasn’t started yet and also because the Thunder isn’t playing.

I think that you live here now, and all the free time you’ll have in the off season means it’ll happen soon, us meeting (and subsequently falling in so much love). You like pizza, and I also like pizza, and maybe we will want to eat pizza at the same time. Maybe you will order something weird on your pizza like jalapenos, and I will order jalapenos at the next table, and we will lock eyes and smile. And I will tell you how much I liked that one screen you had during that one game and offer up all of the hilarious nicknames I’ve given your teammates.

And eventually, you will tell me that you like my perfect head shape and notice that shoes match my outfit.

Yours,
Becky Carman

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dana carvey

‘Special’ performance
for Oklahoma Gazette

A scheduling snafu on the interview meant I received (and kept, of course) a long, charming, rambling voicemail from Mr. Carvey’s cell phone, explaining he’d had trouble operating his technology in Canada and hoping I’d call him back. I did. To date, the most surreal interview I’ve ever done. He’s eager to please, did many of his famous impressions on the phone for me, and told me I’m funny, that I made him laugh.

Although he’s known for characters like The Church Lady and “Wayne’s World”’s Garth, there’s one moment in Dana Carvey’s career that cemented his future: “My first 200 shows or so I did for free, but for one gig, I got $50. I said, ‘This is it. Fifty bucks.’ I felt incredibly rich.”

Foregoing his backup plans and those of his parents — waiter and typist, respectively — Carvey says he “rode the wave” of the exploding comedy scene in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

“By the time I got on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ there were 10,000 comedy clubs. When I was in college, there were none,” he said. “I was performing at music venues and places with people heckling me and ignoring me.”

After joining the cast of “SNL” in 1986 — a sure sign at that time, according to Carvey, that you’d made it as a comedian — he found an immediate hit with his pious Church Lady bit.

“My very first show, I did ‘Church Chat,’ and it barely got on,” he said. “It was the last sketch before the goodnight, but it killed. There were a lot of religious scandals back then; that was the first thing to hit for me.”

The 1986-87 season was the show’s 12th, but the show faced cancellation for the first time in its history.

“We had to dig our way out,” Carvey said, “but we had Phil Hartman and Mike Myers, then Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz, Adam Sandler … this hybrid cast from 1990- 93 was kind of a peak. I also think the current cast is brilliant, though I was on the last phase of the show before the Internet and cable were really everywhere. It meant a lot to be on NBC on Saturday night.”

After his departure from “SNL,” ABC aired a mere seven episodes of “The Dana Carvey Show” before pulling it, reportedly due in part to family-unfriendly material. The cast included future comic superstars Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Louis C.K., among others.

For comedians now, Carvey said, “It’s easier to kind of break in a lesser way. There are young people on YouTube making a hundred grand a year doing videos from home. It’s easier to be in the business and make it to the middle level, but to make it to the top is always hard.”

For now, he will continue to do things the old-fashioned way: stand-up in cities across the globe. Despite his affection for the region — “I love the Sooners. I love Oklahoma. I could live there!” — Carvey’s visits have been infrequent. He makes amends Friday, with a performance at WinStar World Casino in Thackerville.

Expect plenty of new stand-up fodder, like this sample gem: “There are rules when you talk about your friend’s wife. You can’t say, ‘My wife’s kinda moody, but Barbara’s a bitch.’ That’s against the rules.”

And don’t worry: The show will include plenty of political ribbing from both sides of the fence.

“Most places, making fun of the far right is fun, but the real challenge  is finding leverage to also make fun of the left. It’s very challenging to satirize Obama; there’s a lot of sensitivity. I like to play both sides. I’m a radical moderate … a social liberal with a dollop of Karl Marx and a spoonful of Ron Paul. I don’t belong to a party. I don’t want to have to call someone up and ask what my opinion is. I’m an Americanist.”

Well. Isn’t that special?

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