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By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 18th annual Four Corners Folk Festival will take place from Aug. 30-Sept. 1 on Reservoir Hill in downtown Pagosa Springs.
We’re always excited about our lineups, but this year stands out because of the amount of super fresh, new talent like this week’s featured artists John Fullbright and The Lone Bellow. Many different styles of music will be heard from a wide variety of musicians including John Hiatt and the Combo, Natalie MacMaster, Darrell Scott, the Wood Brothers, Elephant Revival, Jimmy LaFave, Aoife O’Donovan Band, Sarah Siskind and Travis Book, Slaid Cleaves, Baskery, New Country Rehab, Rose’s Pawn Shop, Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams and the Giving Tree Band.
The Lone Bellow’s lead singer and principal songwriter Zach Williams can pinpoint just about exactly when the Brooklyn-based group serendipitously willed itself into being. It was around 9 a.m. one morning in 2010, at Dizzy’s Diner in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where the Lone Bellow’s guitarist and Williams’ old friend Brian Elmquist was working a shift. Williams, performing as a solo artist, needed a place to try out some new songs; for a scuffling artist, the diner was as good as any rehearsal space. He asked fellow singer Kanene Pipkin, just returned to New York City from living in Beijing, to meet them at the diner and the trio did more than merely jam. With the beginnings of a repertoire and an already strong communal spirit, that fateful morning they became the Lone Bellow.
As Williams recalls, “Three songs in I realized I should quit what I’m doing and just make music with these people.”
And that’s what he did. The trio’s self-titled debut disc is exuberant in its playing, welcoming in its attitude. Though the lyrics have a melancholic undercurrent, the tracks are more often rave-ups than ruminations, with swelling three-part harmonies and rousing group-sung choruses, especially on the electric guitar-driven “The One You Should’ve Let Go” and “Green Eyes and A Heart of Gold,” a we-will-survive anthem that could be about a family or a band. Indeed, there is a strong familial feel to The Lone Bellow, a recurring theme of inclusiveness.
That sentiment lies at the heart of the album and Williams’ own career to date. The native Georgian first came to songwriting via near tragedy. While still living down south, Williams’ young wife was catastrophically injured in a horseback riding accident. Physicians initially told Williams that, at best, his wife would leave the hospital a paraplegic. But doctors at the pioneering Shepard Center in Atlanta thought otherwise and, after months of rehab, she ultimately regained the ability to walk. Throughout the ordeal, Williams had been scribbling his thoughts into a journal; good friend Caleb Clardy, co-writer of “Teach Me To Know,” suggested he turn his writing into songs. The couple’s friends had rallied around them, practically living in the hospital waiting room with Williams, organically becoming the support group he needed. Williams admits, “That was the first time I really experienced somebody trying their best to carry someone else’s burden. It was very moving to me. I was going to classes on how to bathe and feed my wife, and I was trying to process all the fear and anger and the numbness. I started reading my friends these journal entries. I was writing in a kind of rhyming form because it helped to keep my mind focused. Caleb said, these are songs, man, you need to learn how to play the guitar and sing at the same time.”
Having experienced something close to a miracle, a revitalized Williams and his wife decided to head to New York City and pursue their creative paths in earnest. Several of their friends, equally motivated, chose to follow, and they reformed a tightly knit community in Brooklyn, where everyone settled. Williams initially worked as a solo artist, backed at times by a hired band. Two years ago, following a soul-searching trip he’d taken with his wife, Williams re-emerged with a stack of deeply personal songs — tender but frank tales of romantic rupture and hard-fought redemption — rooted in the country, folk and gospel of his Southern youth, and that’s the material he brought to the diner.
Along with the core group of Williams, Pipkin, and fellow Georgian Elmquist, the Lone Bellow’s recording and touring ensemble now includes Ben Mars on bass, Brian Murphy on keyboards, Matt Knapp on lap steel and electric guitar, Jason Pipkin on banjo and mandolin, and Brian Griffin on drums. After a warm-up gig at Brooklyn’s Roots Cafe, Williams got a call from The Civil Wars, the Grammy Award-winning duo that he’d befriended while they were playing at the Lower East Side’s Rockwood Music Hall. They asked if he and his new cohorts would open for them in Philadelphia: “We rehearsed for three days straight to try and get our act together and went to Philly and played our first real show as a group. It was so life giving, everything that everyone was playing had the overarching values of honesty, friendship and vulnerability, I felt like we really connected with this group of people in Philadelphia who’d never heard of us before.”
Willams met with Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock when the Lone Bellow played the Bowery Ballroom and took him to the Rockwood, the modest but well-regarded two-room venue that Williams had long considered his musical home: ”When Charlie came up, I said, ‘Let’s walk around the block. I want to show you the venue.’ The owner, Ken Rockwood, was there and they just hit it off. Charlie was walking around, snapping his fingers close to walls, looking at the glass windows in front of the large room, and he said, ‘You should make your record here.’ Ken gave us the room for three days and three nights. We lived there. Our eight-piece band recorded twelve songs there and Charlie magically made them something worth listening to. I will never forget that experience.”
Peacock captured the spirit and the sound of these individuals, both at their most confident and their most vulnerable. Their recording of “Teach Me To Know,” an infectious folk/gospel sing-along, was the by-product of some spontaneous late-night carousing, according to Williams: “We were ten songs in, I was exhausted, my vocals were completely gone, it was like one a.m and it started pouring down rain. Our piano player Brian ran outside and layed down on the sidewalk. So we all ran outside. Two of the band members started dancing in the rain and the rest of us started running around Allen Street with our shirts off. It was a beautiful moment. And while we were out there being dumb, Charlie set up the mics completely differently. When we came back inside, soaking wet from the rain, he said, we’re recording ‘Teach Me to Know’ right now. And we laid it down. And that was the way it was making this record. It was all about capturing moments. We didn’t play to a click; we were just in it. It was absolutely wonderful. I felt like the city just soaked through the windows into the recording.”
Afterwards, Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Elmquist joined Peacock down in Nashville for overdubs and fixes with some additional players at his studio, the Art House — an abandoned old church he had retrofitted on a small piece of land — and that location proved to be as well-suited to the band’s sensibility as the Rockwood. The results of their efforts, the Lone Bellow’s debut, are earnest, inspiring and fun. Everyone listening — and undoubtedly singing and stomping along — will surely feel like part of the family too.
The Lone Bellow will make their Four Corners Folk Festival debut, fresh off the heels of a performance on the Late Show with Jay Leno, on Sunday, Sept. 1, at 5 p.m.
“I have no doubt that in a short time, John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.” — Jimmy Webb
Forget labels when you listen to John Fullbright. He is not folk, not Americana and not pop, but possibly the best fusion of them all. In the Grammy-nominated 2012 release “From the Ground Up,” Fullbright traverses an emotional and musical terrain that is extremely broad, showing equal acuity with tender ballads and songs that make you want to drive faster with the windows rolled down. Fullbright, still in his early 20s, has joined the conversation about the best new artists in music today. Firmly rooted in a variety of musical styles, he draws on what has come before, but without imitation.
John Fullbright burst upon the Southwest music scene in 2009 with a stellar live album recorded at the Blue Door, the legendary venue in Oklahoma City. From his home in Okemah, Okla. — also the hometown of Woody Guthrie — Fullbright had already honed his songwriting and playing skills to a degree that he was a favorite at festival campgrounds before he was even out of high school.
Quickly produced as a “calling card” for the 2009 Folk Alliance Conference, “Live at the Blue Door” went on to set sales records at WoodyFest, the annual folk festival honoring Woody Guthrie. In the intervening years, Fullbright has opened for a host of folk and Americana names — including Jimmy Webb, Joe Ely, Kevin Welch, Michael Fracasso, and Steve Poltz — from Oklahoma to Europe and back.
Fullbright’s earliest songwriting heroes, Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury, infuse his latest record, but so do Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, and many of Fullbright’s songwriting compatriots from Oklahoma and Texas.
Fullbright co-produced “From the Ground Up.” The photo on the cover shows him on the front porch of the house where both he and his father grew up — with the owner of 115 Studios in Norman, Okla., Wes Sharon, who also played bass on the album. Fullbright played many of the instruments on the album: all of piano and harmonica, almost all of the organ parts and much of the guitar work. Musicians from the legendary to the infamous lent their talents: Terry “Buffalo” Ware and Andrew Hardin added guitar, while Fats Kaplin played violin and steel guitar. Other musicians on the album are Giovanni Carnuccio III (drums), John Knudson (organ), Jess Klein (background vocals) and Ryan Engleman (guitar).
John Fullbright is a young man who finds love, beauty and pain in the here and now, and skepticism and disdain for those who would take advantage of the dreams of those hoping for a better world. That he can articulate his worldview with an almost otherworldly precocity makes his debut studio album, “From the Ground Up,” worthy of attention. From the fertile ground of Oklahoma, another songwriting legend is blooming.
John Fullbright is set to play the festival on Friday, Aug. 30, at 5 p.m.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported in part by a grant from Colorado Creative Industries. For tickets or additional information about this year’s Four Corners Folk Festival, including schedules, performer web links and more, visit www.folkwest.com or call 731-5582.