By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 21st annual Four Corners Folk Festival is drawing closer and closer, with festivities set to take place Sept. 2, 3 and 4 on Reservoir Hill right here in Pagosa Springs.
The event features live performances and music workshops from some of today’s most popular touring bands in the folk, bluegrass and Celtic music genres.
This year brings another stellar lineup to the hill, with The Del McCoury Band, The Milk Carton Kids, The O’Connor Band featuring Mark O’Connor, Sara Watkins, Darrell Scott, the Black Lillies, Sierra Hull, The East Pointers, The Lonely Heartstring Band, Rose’s Pawn Shop, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, Songs of the Fall, Trout Steak Revival and this week’s featured performers, Coral Creek and John Fullbright.
Coral Creek is a Colorado-based Americana/country-rock/jamgrass band that features the original songs of Chris Thompson, Bill McKay and Luke Bulla — performing original songs as well as Americana classics by The Band, Grateful Dead, Peter Rowan, Neil Young, etc.
Coral Creek opened a new chapter last fall, releasing and touring in support of a breakthrough album produced by Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth. The self-titled album, “Coral Creek,” marks the beginning of a new era for the Colorado-based Americana/jamgrass band, as the first release with standout keyboard player Bill McKay and Grammy Award-winning fiddle player Luke Bulla.
McKay, best known for his roles with Leftover Salmon and Derek Trucks Band, joins songwriter/guitarist Chris Thompson at center stage, singing leads and contributing to the band’s extensive repertoire of original material.
Nashville fiddler Luke Bulla, who earned a Grammy Award with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, comes to Coral Creek via the Lyle Lovett Band, Jerry Douglas Band, John Cowan Band and Kentucky Thunder. Luke is also a distinguished vocalist and songwriter.
Coral Creek will take the stage at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 2.
Fullbright got his start at the legendary Blue Door listening room in Oklahoma City, Okla. It was there that he recorded a live album and found his base, opening for many other writers, including fellow Oklahomans Kevin Welch and Jimmy Webb. His 2012 studio debut, “From the Ground Up,” received a Grammy nomination for Americana Album of the Year, and later that year he won ASCAP’s Harold Adamson Award for lyric writing. In 2014, Fullbright released the critically acclaimed record “Songs.”
“What’s so bad about happy?” Fullbright sings on the opening track of “Songs.” It’s a play on the writer’s curse, the notion that new material can only come through heartbreak or depression, that great art is only born from suffering.
“A normal person, if they find themselves in a position of turmoil or grief, they’ll say, ‘I need to get out of this as fast as I can,’” said Fullbright. “A writer will say, ‘How long can I stay in this until I get something good?’ And that’s a BS way to look at life.”
That plainspoken approach is part of what’s fueled the young Oklahoman’s remarkable rise. It was just four years ago that Fullbright released his debut studio album, “From The Ground,” to a swarm of critical acclaim.
The LA Times called the record “preternaturally self–assured,” while NPR hailed him as one of the 10 Artists You Should Have Known in 2012, saying, “it’s not every day a new artist … earns comparisons to great songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman, but Fullbright’s music makes sense in such lofty company.”
The Wall Street Journal crowned him as giving one of the year’s 10 best live performances, and the album also earned him the ASCAP Foundation’s Harold Adamson Lyric Award. If there was any doubt that his debut announced the arrival of a songwriting force to be reckoned with, it was put to rest when “From The Ground Up” was nominated for Best Americana Album at the Grammy Awards, which placed Fullbright alongside some of the genre’s most iconic figures, including Bonnie Raitt.
“I never came into this with a whole lot of expectations,” said Fullbright. “I just wanted to write really good songs and, with that outlook, everything else is a perk. The fact that we went to LA and played ‘Gawd Above’ in front of a star–studded audience [at the Grammy pre–tel concert], never in my life would I have imagined that.”
But for Fullbright, it hasn’t been all the acclaim that means the most to him, but rather his entrance into a community of songwriters whose work he admires.
“When I started out, I was all by myself in a little town in Oklahoma where whatever you wanted, you just made it yourself,” he explained. “I didn’t grow up around musicians or like-minded songwriters, but I grew up around records. One of the most fulfilling things about the last two years is that now I’m surrounded by like-minded people in a community of peers. You don’t feel so alone anymore.”
If there’s a recurring motif that jumps out upon first listen to “Songs,” it’s the act of writing, which is one Fullbright treats with the utmost respect. Fullbright inhabits his songs’ narrators completely, his old–soul voice fleshing out complex characters and subtle narratives with a gifted sense of understatement.
“My songwriting is a lot more economical now,” he explained. “I like to say as much as I can in 2 minutes 50 seconds, and that’s kind of a point of pride for me.”
The arrangements on “Songs” are stripped down to their cores and free of ornamentation. Fullbright’s guitar and piano anchor the record, while a minimalist rhythm section weaves in and out throughout the album.
That’s not to say these are simple songs; Fullbright possesses a keen ear for memorable melody and a unique approach to harmony, moving through chord progressions far outside the expected confines of traditional folk or Americana. The performances are stark and direct, though, a deliberate approach meant to deliver the songs in their purest and most honest form.
“I’m a better performer and writer and musician now, and I wanted a record that would reflect that,” he said. “We tracked a lot of it live, just me and a bass player in a room with a few microphones. The basis is a live performance and everything else supports that. I think you just get as much energy and skill as you can into a take, and then start building from there. And what we found is that you don’t have to add too much to that.”
The songs also reflect how drastically Fullbright’s life has changed since the release of “From The Ground Up,” which launched him into a rigorous schedule of international touring.
To be sure, “Songs” has its moments of darkness, tracks born from pain and heartbreak, but for a craftsman like Fullbright, there are few greater joys than carving emotion into music, taking a stab at that lofty goal of immortality through song. It makes him — and his fans — happy, and there’s nothing bad about that.
Fullbright will appear on the festival stage at 1:45 p.m. on Sept. 4.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is funded in part with a matching grant from Colorado Creative Industries.
Children 12 and under receive free admission when accompanied by a paying adult.
A free app is available for Apple and Android products; search “FolkWest” in your app store.
Additional information, including performance schedule, ticket prices, camping info, etc. is available online at www.folkwest.com.