JUDD FULLER TURNS SOUND & STYLE INTO PERFORMANCE ART
From the moment we’re born, we become rooted in our birthplace to begin the arduous task of personal growth and fulfilling our reason for being. This rooted existence is nurtured by the family we’re part of, the friends we make along the way, and the places and experiences that influence us on our journey. What we become often reflects the investment made and happenstance that may occur. Musician, Judd Fuller, was born in New York City, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Although he would be raised mostly in Westport, Connecticut, his music career is a product of the dynamic world fusion that NYC thrives on. When I first saw Judd, he was playing bass and singing harmonies alongside country music artist, Rodney Atkins. Dressed in a cowboy hat, he looked the part. It wasn’t until I interviewed him that I discovered a world class musician, much larger in scope than that cliched hat would suggest. His reputation as a professional musician is steeped in street cred, with credentials as solid and diverse as the artistic graffiti found in the NYC subway system. The layering that produces the finished product is a time-honored tradition that draws respect from other artists and fans alike. With Judd Fuller, each layer I chipped away at revealed new details that both support and define this unsung masterpiece.
The supporting cast of characters in this story all have their place amongst the layers, but it would be Judd who picked up the brush and turned a blank space into a work of art. The Judd family household was filled with the elements of music in the form of records, instruments, and some very talented siblings. Surrounded by music, he absorbed the passion and diversity in the offerings. He has a sister who’s a talented singer, a brother that’s an accomplished jazz bassist, and another who writes songs and plays guitar. They were always in bands of one genre or another and the music scene was ripe with new sounds at that time. He began playing the guitar when he was ten, escaping to his room to learn the hits of the day and impress his family and friends, feeding the growing desire of his musical soul. You couldn’t grow up in this era and not be influenced by the rock and roll that defined classic vinyl. Judd formed his first band in the 8th grade, STORM! He says they were terrible, in no way a threat to KISS or BTO, but admired by their peers just the same. In high school, he listened to everything and absorbed it like a sponge. He found diversity in the likes of the Grateful Dead, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, The Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. His high school years were a manifestation of interpreting those iconic vinyl artists into a sound his young, raw band could somewhat recognizably play. While others were marching with bands on the field, he was already marching to the beat of his own making.
Post high school, Judd attended Lafayette College in Easton, PA. For those with an intellectual bent, albeit musically inclined, college was an expected outpost to expand one’s horizons and notch a more worldly outlook. He would continue to play with various bands throughout his college years until that nagging voice in his head began to question his residency in such an academically infused setting. By the end of college, he’d been bit by the bluegrass bug when he was exposed to bluegrass supergroup, Old and in the Way. They’d sprouted in the 70s and played traditional sounding bluegrass along with their unique bluegrass-injected versions of the Stones’, “Wild Horses” and Peter Rowan’s, “Panama Red.” Judd’s interest in this genre would seem out of place for a guy born in NYC, but as his layers are revealed, their revolutionary, interpretive music would come to define Judd’s unique wheelhouse and foreshadow a future reunion with a ghost of his bluegrass past. Their self-titled debut album, Old & In the Way, was released in 1975, and their banjo player and vocalist was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. This album would become one of the best selling bluegrass albums of all time, proving that Judd’s musical instincts would lead him to the most solid of roots from which to grow. Never shying away from the need to quench the thirst of his developing roots, he joined a bluegrass band and played with them regionally in the early to mid-80s, frequenting clubs and outdoor festivals, and even daring to expose their music on stages at rock and roll clubs. He admitted, “We were not always well received there.” This time in Judd’s life would be my first indication that the need to nourish his musical soul outweighs the pull of the conventional norms of the day. Cutting yourself off from a supporting root runs the risk of having to survive in unfamiliar soil. Rather than jumping on a raging bandwagon, he chose to stay on his home turf and hone his craft in an evolving and familiar place.
In the latter half of the 80s, Judd lived in Milford, Connecticut for a time before moving back to his birthplace, NYC. There, he cut his teeth in performance art by playing on city streets and at the 72nd Street Subway Station. He said it was an eye opening experience for many reasons, and one he feels gave him some valuable lessons in playing in front of people from all walks of life. He still remembers an instance when a homeless man, listening to him play nearby, chased away two kids who’d come along and tried to steal his hard earned money. Here was someone who so obviously could have used the money himself, but he defended the investment Judd had made in earning it with his intolerance of taking something you hadn’t worked for. There is a sense of irony in this when you compare it to the way some performers show up to play a gig and take the gate profits without giving the audience the quality concert they invested in. Judd’s commitment to the stage and his personal contributions to the overall performance were obviously influenced by this lesson in honesty, drenched in reality. This would be where art imitating life comes full circle. When I asked Judd who his most influential guitarist was, he answered with a name I was unfamiliar with – Al Anderson of NRBQ. Al was born in Connecticut, and from 1971 into the early 90s, he was the lead guitarist for this groundbreaking rock group. Their acclaimed album, All Hopped Up, was released in 1977, and was the product of a musically explosive period. They drew from the seeds planted between Woodstock and the punk rock era and made a record that suited their individuality. “I Got a Rocket In My Pocket” was a song off this album and one I think illustrates the talent they were holding. As I continue to chip away at the colorful past of Judd Fuller, this song title accurately represents the force of the skills he was building and the potential for reaching the stars his talent allows.
The 90s would see the rocket power of Judd Fuller’s talents explode in the incarnation of a band called ENTRAIN. He was a founding member of this group, along with drummer, Tom Major. In 1993, Martha’s Vineyard served as the proving grounds for the sound they would develop and test on summer tourists and the rich and famous. The members of this eclectic group brought together a wealth of colorful music roots and twisted them into the songs and sounds they performed, like they were “fired out of a cannon,” according to Judd’s recounting. The band collectively wrote the songs for their albums, and the diversity from which they wrote provided an invaluable lesson in what good can happen when you create from your diversity, rather than allow those differences to divide and lay waste. Judd played bass and sang both lead vocals and harmonies on the albums he contributed to and in the live shows. The two outstanding albums he was a part of are Can U Get It (1996), and No Matter What (1997). On Can U Get it, he wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on that album and sang lead vocals on “Scatter The Fire,” “A-La-Hey,” “Hear My Prayer,” “House On The Hill,” and “Dancin’ In the Light.” There is a richness in his voice and a palette of tones he draws from in his lyrical interpretation, painting an inflection, bold or soft, as needed. His vocal range covers the spectrum of genres he’s sampled, the roots of each supplying the grounding from which he sings. Categorically, Entrain is listed under world music. Their appeal has earned them that classification. In 1995, they won the Boston Music Award for Best Live Show. The positive energy they bring to their music is perfectly suited for a live performance, and something I saw in Judd as I watched him perform a bass solo that electrified in the connection he made between the instrument and the listener. It lit up the night sky with a thunder and lightning approach his playing exemplifies.
I marveled at the way Judd’s solo made me feel and wondered how he did it. Chipping away below the surface, I found the music of my youth influencing my reaction. When Judd was with Entrain, there were a multitude of opportunities to play alongside some of music’s greats. He played with Bo Diddley on a few occasions, played bass for Carly Simon on some demo tracks, and got to sing a duet with the Grateful Dead’s, Bob Weir. “Not Fade Away” was a song Bob had originally sung with Jerry Garcia. Jerry had just passed away and Bob was performing a few gigs on Nantucket. Judd was asked to sing with him in place of the legendary Garcia. As a fan of the group, and of Jerry’s, going back to his youth and bluegrass days, this was a surreal moment for Judd and one he hasn’t stopped marveling at. His time with Entrain was an enlightening experience for him and he learned a lot over the five years of their collaborative efforts. In 1998, business differences caused him to leave the group and pursue other interests.
As the new millennium was coming into view, Judd found himself listening to country music. His dad was a writer, and he had always appreciated the written word and the quality of the lyrical writing he found in country songs. The storytelling that defined the songs of the genre would peak his interest in the music and inspire him to try his hand at writing. This would be yet another feature of his layered existence that continued to evolve into the 21st century. In 2001, Judd played on a bluegrass acoustic recording session with a musician who lived nearby in Connecticut. He hadn’t known Liam Bailey prior to this session, and had no way of knowing then that he was looking at a premonition of gigs to come. This same year, he began playing in a band with the former lead singer of the J. Geils Band, Peter Wolf. Peter had been with J. Geils from 1967 until 1983. Since that time, he’d launched a successful solo career based out of NYC and reunited with J. Geils, for a few dates a month, beginning in 1999. Judd was part of Wolf’s backing band on his solo tours, continuing to add to his colorful and extensive resume. When the band started falling apart in 2004, Judd moved to Martha’s Vineyard and managed a club there during the summer. This interlude gave him the opportunity to take stock of his career, and his personal life, and decide in which direction he wanted to go.
By 2005, he’d written a few country songs and opted to make the move to Nashville. It was a city that pulsed with a musical vibe, even in genres that belied its singular country heritage. Taking a conservative approach to a long-term commitment in Music City, he rented a studio apartment near The Gulch, a vibrant community located between Music Row and downtown Nashville. He signed a six-month lease at $500/month. For those of you ready to pack up and move there for that steal of a deal, don’t. Today’s prices make that laughable, according to Judd. Within three months of landing in Nashville, Judd would get the opportunity he’d hoped for courtesy of a connection to his past he was unaware of. When Judd was playing in Peter Wolf’s band, he’d played alongside guitarist, Stuart Kimball. Kimball left in June of 2004 when he was asked to join Bob Dylan’s backing band. Back in the 80s, Kimball had a band called Face To Face. A young Kevin Rapillo, Connecticut resident, worked as a crew member for that band, and through the years, Kevin and Stuart had remained friends. Fast forward to 2006. Kevin was the drummer and musical director for rising country star, Rodney Atkins. Tasked with putting together a permanent band to back up Rodney, he contacted his old friend Stuart to ask for recommendations. As luck would have it, Stuart suggested Judd as a bass player, and without so much as an audition, Kevin hired Judd. Unbeknownst to both of them, they had once lived just 15 minutes apart in Connecticut but hadn’t crossed paths. There would be a short week of rehearsals before this new road band would set out to promote Rodney’s new album, If You’re Going Through Hell. Finding themselves in need of another musician, Judd recruited his old bluegrass recording partner, Liam Bailey. Liam was living in Seattle at the time, and Judd convinced him to take the plunge into country music and move to Nashville. All those layers of colorful characters from your past can suddenly reinvent themselves and resurface in the picture of your present day life.
When painting that new picture of your suddenly vibrant life, Judd cautioned me about hiring Liam Bailey as a painter. Finding themselves bandmates in a country band, Judd and Liam became roommates for a time. Judd and his wife had purchased an unfurnished home in Nashville that was devoid of color and nearly all of the creature comforts of civilized living. Describing the items these two lived with brought to mind the much coveted “man cave.” In this case, however, they were living more like modern day cavemen with the added bonus of a television. Judd found his meager surroundings advantageous when it came to painting the house and thought that his new roommate would help with the chore. I have been given permission to print the following statement as fact: “Liam Bailey is the slowest painter on Earth.” That said, hire him as a musician but NOT as a painter.
The band would round itself out in the next few years with the additions of lap steel player, Dan Galysh, in 2008, and Phil Shouse, lead guitarist, in 2010. The many talents these guys possess include being multi-instrumentalists and impressive vocalists in their own right. In addition to bass, Judd plays the mandolin, piano, drums, and guitar. He also sings harmonies with Rodney in their live shows. The camaraderie this group has, both on and off the country stage, has led them to partner in side projects. They are involved in several outstanding bands that they play in and write music for when time permits. Judd and Liam let loose in a fun band called The Drop Shots. With an uncomplicated feel and great dance rhythms, this group plays Jamaican Rocksteady- influenced, reggae style music. Rocksteady began in Jamaica in the late 60s. Lasting just a few years, it gave way to the rise of reggae music that has dominated that culture ever since. The early core of Rodney’s current band – Kevin, Judd, and Liam – play as a trio in The HiMMs. Their self-titled debut album, The HiMMs, was released in January, 2014. If there is a 21st century sounding rock that embodies the sound, feel, and message of musical revolutionists of the 20th century, this is it. Listen to the first track on the record, “It’s Better To Love,” and see if it doesn’t put a bug in your ear. The fifth track, “The Animal,” is genius in its instrumental mosaic of rock stylings of the last century. Brilliant! Since June of 2014, Judd and bandmate, Phil Shouse, have played with Thee Rock and Roll Residency. They perform most Tuesday nights at Dan McGuinness Irish Pub in Nashville. They are a cover band for all things classic rock, and you won’t find a better representation ANYWHERE! These guys are a MUST SEE for anyone who is a fan of classic rock bands. Sensational! Judd’s other drop-in gig is with a band called Them Vibes. Their music is considered rock and roll Americana. This suggests root driven rock with a nod to the genres that led to and fueled its origins.
In the downtime Judd rarely finds, he loves fly fishing and watching Mets baseball. He has three dogs he likes to run in the woods with – Hazel, Twiggy, and Rowdy. This would suggest a laid back, easygoing persona, and one our conversation supported. Judd didn’t relate the events of his life in music in a hyped-up way. Recounting some of the accomplishments on his resume, it sounded as if he hadn’t thought about them in awhile. There is nothing contrived about him. He is the product of a passion for music that was likely stamped into his DNA and fostered in an environment alive with the sounds of a musically diverse era. The roots he came from he continues to cultivate in the full-on way he lives through music. Looking beneath the live musician I saw on stage, I found the hues he brings to his live performance mixed from the primary colors of his past. Judd Fuller is a masterpiece of performance art, brought to life through a palette of musical experience, combined with a passionate soul. The strings of his bass, like subway lines, allow his fingers to traverse the miles between the stops he’s made and deliver him to a spotlight solo. Forgoing the brush, he splatters that solo across the stage with the zeal of a graffiti artist who’s just spray painted his art form with dramatic results. The signature his bass leaves behind is one you’ll be drawn to, on every stage and every street corner it appears on. Take a moment to appreciate what went into it and applaud the amazing musician who created it – Judd Fuller, creating art through music.
Judd Fuller – masterpiece of performance art
Connect with Judd Fuller!
Subscribe to Judd’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/MrJuddfuller
Follow Thee Rock ‘N Roll Residency on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theerocknrollresidency?fref=ts
Catch their performance most Tuesday nights at Dan McGuinness Irish Pub in Nashville.
Visit The HiMMs website: http://www.thehimms.com/
Download The HiMMs on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-himms/id808958501
Current concert photos courtesy of Bill McClintic of 90 East Photography.
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