Before it was a conduit for the songs of Gary Fulkerson, the 1967 Goya acoustic guitar spent too much time in two living room corners.
In Fulkerson’s childhood home in Dallas, Texas, his mother played the guitar until her life became too busy, and she put it down.
“It just sat in the corner of the living room,” Fulkerson, 37, said last week, “but it was always there.”
Then, almost 10 years ago, his mom realized her son was struggling emotionally, feeling stuck and stunted by daily routine in his then-hometown of Portland. She sent him the Goya, in hopes that it would lead him to a happier place.
Fulkerson hadn’t really played before, besides learning a couple of songs in college. But he started taking lessons from a guy who played fingerstyle jazz, and he picked it up quickly.
“I had these urgings. My fingers knew that they wanted to go somewhere. I had these things going on in my mind,” he said. “I felt as though if these two wires could just connect, then it was just going to explode.”
But before those wires could connect, Fulkerson and his wife had a child, and the guitar sat in a different corner, in another living room.
Until the family moved to Bend.
Three years ago, Fulkerson bought a friend guitar lessons with local musician Joe Schulte, but the friend never cashed them in. So Fulkerson rescued the guitar from the corner and took the lessons himself. The rest is history.
“Emotionally and creatively, I felt as though I wasn’t really being true to myself somehow, and I wasn’t really expressing what I needed to express,” he said. “The combination of picking up the guitar (came together with) feeling completely stuck and reaching this pit, and at the confluence of those things, I started to write songs. So I sat down and I wrote this first song.”
That was more than two years ago. Since then, the songs have poured forth, and Fulkerson has compiled some of them on his new album, “Float and Scatter,” which he’ll celebrate with a show Saturday in Bend (see “If you go,” Page 3).
“It became a need more than something I wanted to try. It became a necessity,” Fulkerson said. “It was like, ‘I’ve got to just get something out. Something has to get out of me.’ And when I wrote that first song, it was as if I had released a breath that I’d been holding in for a century. And it was like, ‘I want another one of those.’ So I wrote another and another, and all of a sudden that doubt and question in my mind began to just melt away.”
Fulkerson calls his mind his “worst enemy.” As evidence, he says music has always been a major presence in his life, and that he dreamed since childhood of playing his own songs on stage.
But for years — in Dallas, at college in Alabama and Georgia, and as a young worker bee in advertising in Portland — his mind threw up obstacles to that dream in a way that only an adult’s mind can.
“When you’re a child ... your mind hasn’t developed to the point where it starts putting doubt in there. It’s like when a child can race up to the top of a tree and hang on with one arm and start whooping,” Fulkerson said. “An adult gets halfway up and fear starts creeping in, and he takes himself out of the situation before he ever tastes that freedom. And so I always knew when I was a child that I’d be climbing up that tree, and then my mind started getting in the way, and I was too afraid.
“When you ignore something like that, there’s this ... annoying thing that’s always back there that’s not going to ever allow you to be happy doing that, because you know you’re not following through with what your soul is calling you to do,” he continued. “So that started to build.”
It built until that breakthrough a couple years ago, with the guitar and the lessons and the songs. Since then, Fulkerson’s musical path has unfolded with alarming clarity, beginning with his first gig, booked by Schulte without his knowledge.
That was Relay For Life, an annual benefit for the American Cancer Society, where Fulkerson resisted his strong, fear-fueled urge to turn around in the parking lot and go home without playing. It was a good move. After his set, several people approached him and told him how much they loved his music and lyrics.
“It was one of those moments when you know that this is what you’re supposed to do,” he said.
The songs on “Float and Scatter” back that feeling up. They’re delicate, precisely plucked songs that live in a celestial place where folk, pop and classical guitar music intersect. Some are instrumental, and some have vocals, but all possess an impelling, impassioned quality that gives them a sort of universal appeal, assuming you’ve ever felt a feeling.
“I try to write from an ethereal place that’s going to allow people to tap into it from their perspective,” Fulkerson said. “I’m writing about my personal experiences, but in a way that I feel people can relate to it.”
The most obvious influence on “Float and Scatter” is the 1970s English folk singer Nick Drake, whose gorgeous, mumbled tunes and untimely death made him an unlikely legend. But these songs are a reflection of a wide set of forebears, from acoustic-guitar masters William Ackerman and Michael Hedges to more popular artists such as Neil Young, The Beatles and the Grateful Dead.
Perhaps more important than any one influence, though, is Fulkerson’s unique songwriting style; each morning, the former night owl sets aside time at 5 a.m. to sit still and allow the music to come through him. There are no melodies or chord progressions planned beforehand. He simply tries to turn on the faucet and let the music flow.
“Literally, my process is as simple as me and my guitar in the early morning hours sitting in stillness — sometimes for 30 seconds, sometimes for 30 minutes — and then all of a sudden I put my hands on the neck of the guitar, and it just starts happening,” he said. “It feels, really, like I’m just the messenger. I’m not forcing anything to come out. It’s expressing itself on its own.”
In case you missed it, that’s a pretty apt metaphor for Fulkerson’s musical journey so far. At 37 years old, with his first batch of songs under his belt and more coming every day, he has never forced anything to come out. He’s let life do the work.
“I feel as though life pushed me through the suffering, and pushed me through this door,” he said. “It was trying to tell me that I needed to go through this door all my life, and I never stepped through it, and finally it just pushed me through the door. And once I stopped fighting all that and just yielded to it, it’s all just unfolding. It’s just an amazing unfolding of opportunities.”
Watching it all unfold has provided Fulkerson with a happiness that he lacked before he picked up that Goya guitar. And perhaps most of all, he hopes there’s a lesson to be learned in his story, too.
“If there is an urge within you to do something ... I feel as though I’m proof that you’re supposed to do it (and) that you’re being told that this is something you’re meant to do,” he said. “And I can only think that that’s true based upon what I’ve experienced. If you feel it, and you put the doubt and fear behind and you put intent in front of you and you follow through with your heart, it’s going to be successful, maybe not by selling a million records, but successful in that it’s touching lives.”