Let’s start at the end of Austin singer-songwriter Chris Fullerton’s new album “Epilepsy Blues,” for the song “Seven Roman Candles” is a story in itself. A haunting collage of bittersweet piano chords and backward-tracked guitar leads with vivid lyrics delivered in Fullerton’s tormented twang, it’s a six-minute song that leaves a lasting impression long after the record has stopped playing.
The tune hinges on a handful of lines borrowed from “Brooding Likeness,” a verse by National Book Award-winning poet Louise Glück. Voiced by Fullerton’s wife, Lindsay Preston, Glück’s words echo the darkly beautiful visions at the core of Fullerton’s art:
“And you who watch him, looking down in the face of death, what do you know of commitment?”
Fullerton can tell you something about looking down in the face of death. Five years ago, shortly after he’d moved to Austin from Boston, he went to the doctor after suffering a string of seizures. They found that not only did Fullerton have epilepsy, a neurological disorder that affects about 1 percent of the population, but he also had an arteriovenous malformation, essentially a tangle of blood vessels in the brain.
“They told me, ‘There’s nothing we can do; it’s only a matter of time,’” Fullerton recalls of that day in the neurologist’s office. “I had an 80 percent risk of stroke at that point,” he says, adding that he also had a high probability of brain aneurysms rupturing.
Preston, who’d met Fullerton shortly after he moved to Austin and was now living with him, refused to accept the dire diagnosis. “Lindsay was determined to find me treatment,” Fullerton says. “She had been reading about cyberknife treatments, which were very new at the time. And the doctor was like, ‘Yeah, actually I think that would be an option; let’s do that.’”
For two years, Fullerton endured cyberknife radiation treatments, and although they put pretty much everything else in his life on hold, his condition improved significantly. He still has epilepsy, he still suffers seizures every few weeks, and he’ll be on anti-convulsant medication probably for the rest of his life. But he’s no longer “looking down in the face of death.”
TODAY, A MUSICAL CAREER that had begun to take root when all of this happened is reaching full bloom. Fullerton quietly released “Epilepsy Blues” on his own in February, and then a totally random occurrence brought it to broader attention. Music journalist Rob Patterson, a longtime Austin freelance writer who was doing some delivery work on the side, dropped off an order at Fullerton’s house and noticed he had a lot of recording gear in his living room. Fullerton explained he was an aspiring songwriter and gave Patterson a copy of “Epilepsy Blues.”
Impressed with what he heard, Patterson wrote a review for the online Lone Star Music magazine, whose editor, Richard Skanse, subsequently wrote a feature story about Fullerton that helped catch the attention of San Marcos-based Americana label Eight 30 Records.
Eight 30 re-released the album to a wider audience in August, at which point we reviewed it in our Austin360 On The Record roundup: “From start to finish, ‘Epilepsy Blues’ is full of songs that demand to be heard, from a brave writer who doesn’t back away from the dark heart of the matter.”
Perhaps the best of those songs is “Float on Up and See,” a tender ballad that, along with the album’s title track, anchors the center of “Epilepsy Blues.” Written for his wife, it’s a love song with the kind of rarefied poetic beauty that suggests Fullerton might belong in a league with Texas troubadours such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. (Fitting, then, that Fullerton and Preston named their son Townes.)
“I wrote it for Lindsay as a Christmas present. I didn’t have anything for her,” Fullerton confesses, sheepishly. That worked out all right. Amid his gentle guitar picking and gorgeous violin accents from Luke Willis, Fullerton sings: “When she wakes up from her sleep/ I say, babe on the way back to your dreams/ Just float on up and see you, holding on to me, holding on to you.”
If Preston often serves as a muse for Fullerton — and sometimes a writing partner, he says, noting that she’s been helping him with lyrics on songs for his next record — she’s also done the hard work of simply keeping him alive. That’s documented in the title track, which is set to a classic traditional blues form he learned from renowned San Antonio guitarist Steve James at a seminar on Robert Johnson guitar styles.
Fullerton often aims for surreal or impressionistic tones in his lyrics, but here he cuts straight to the bone. “Well I just can’t shake these epilepsy blues” is the kind of gallows-humor opening line that can be delivered only by someone who lives it. And the way the song abruptly stops, then starts up again, suggests what it’s like for Fullerton when a seizure strikes. Then there’s the middle verse: “Well if you’re smart you’ll see a neurologist. And if you ain’t smart, you’ll find you a girl that is. That’s what I did, and that’s why I’m singing this.”
“It’s a weird balance between light and dark that’s going on in the song, but I think it’s a hopeful one,” Fullerton says. “Usually you’ll have songs that have a narrative, and then everything’s OK, or then the person dies. But with a lot of my songs, like this one, you’re leaving just as sick as you started out.”
IT’S A SOBERING REMINDER that despite Fullerton’s talent, his condition is a major obstacle to his dreams of having a career in music. It’s not insurmountable, though. Skanse connected Fullerton with San Marcos songwriter Terri Hendrix, an epileptic who’s had a long and fruitful career with several albums and a songwriting credit on a Dixie Chicks record.
Hendrix, who runs a monthly epilepsy support group in San Marcos that Fullerton and his wife sometimes attend, has offered moral and practical support. “She reaches out to me and gives me advice,” he says. “Like, she’ll text me and say, ‘Hey, you know what you should do, is do one of like those concert window things when you’re down,” referring to internet-broadcast concerts that can be performed without leaving the house.
Three months ago, Fullerton was all set to take a significant step toward advancing his career. The annual Americana Music Association festival was happening in Nashville in mid-September; Fullerton was heading there with fellow Austin songwriter Terry Klein to take part in a showcase and make some industry connections. His epilepsy had been remarkably well-controlled. “It must have been like eight or nine months that we didn’t have any seizure activity,” he recalls.
And then it hit, just as they were on the northern outskirts of Austin. “I think I’m going to have a seizure,” Fullerton told Klein, who understood the situation and quickly drove his friend to the nearest hospital. There would be no trip to Nashville, and he had to cancel an appearance with Hendrix on a Hurricane Harvey benefit in San Marcos. Sometimes in Fullerton’s world, it’s one step up, two steps back.
His fellow musicians have helped. Bonnie Whitmore, who filled in for him at the Harvey benefit, invited Fullerton to play her Thursday residency at the Continental Gallery in late September. That helped to lift his spirits, and he’s performed more since then, including a Thanksgiving-weekend bill at Threadgill’s. He’ll make his debut at downtown listening room the Townsend on Friday, Dec. 8.
THE PILLARS OF SUPPORT sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places. One is Glück, the New England poet whose words he’d woven into “Seven Roman Candles.” He sent her an email to see if she would approve the usage on his record.
“She was like, ‘That’s a little provocative, to just send me my own work inside of your work. You’re lucky that I like this,’” Fullerton says of the first reply he received from Glück, who was the United States Poet Laureate in 2003-2004.
Two remarkable coincidences followed. Glück, as it turns out, lived in the same Boston neighborhood where Fullerton worked at a coffee shop before he moved to Austin. “I used to serve her coffee and talk to her, but I had no idea who she was,” he marvels.
And: “She has epilepsy too. I had no idea. So we’ve we’ve ended up having a back-and-forth email exchange about epilepsy and, you know, everything.”
“Brooding Likeness,” the poem Fullerton quotes in the song, was written well before he was even aware of Glück’s work, but it’s easy to sense why it struck such a deep chord in him. It concludes:
“…be satisfied/ that in the sky, like you, he is always moving/ not of his own accord but through the black field/ like grit caught on a wheel, like shining freight.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Chris Fullerton
Recordings: “Epilepsy Blues,” 2017.
Performing: Friday, Dec. 8, at the Townsend (8 p.m., $10, thetownsendaustin.com).
Facebook Live: Catch Fullerton playing an Austin360 Facebook live session at noon on Thursday, Dec. 7.