Emelle, Alabama, is a modest railroad town nestled in the state’s Black Belt region near the Mississippi border. One of about 30 residents, J. Burton Fuller epitomizes the character of the small community, but is extremely humble about his talent.
Fuller’s soulful, rich bass voice and expert guitar strumming are broadcast internationally each month during the Sucarnochee Revue. The one-hour radio program, which borrows its name from a nearby river, features Black Belt musicians and is carried on radio stations across the U.S. and the world.
“I think one thing God has gifted me with is the ability to spot talent, and I have always thought J. Burton was as talented as anyone I’ve ever met,” said Jacky Jack White of Meridian, founder of the Sucarnochee Revue. “He’s a major league talent and knows so many songs. It’s like he has a photographic memory.”
Normally hosted in Meridian, Mississippi, the first Friday of each month, the Revue will make a special trip to Livingston, Alabama during the Sucarnochee Folklife Festival April 18. The musical event, scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the courthouse square, is a highlight for Fuller and White, who have played together for more than 20 years.
“I plan to play as long as I’m able and as long as folks will listen,” said Fuller, who is 80. “If people like it, that’s great. If not, then I won’t push it.”
Fuller’s musical foray started with his mom, who played piano for the town church for almost 80 years. Although she didn’t play guitar, she taught Fuller the first three chords he learned when we was nine years old.
“My dad used to say, ‘It makes me mad to hear a man say he can’t do something. A man doesn’t know until he tries,’” he said. “So whatever it is, just try it.”
Fuller has taken his father’s advice to heart his entire life. Once, he wanted to buy a Gibson archtop, jazz guitar, but the asking price was $3,600. So instead, he bought a book about how to make guitars and has been building his own ever since.
“If you can read and use simple tools, you can understand how to make a guitar,” said Fuller, who has also crafted dulcimers, violins and mandolins.
When he’s not playing music, Fuller’s wife of 53 years, Marydean, said he’s carving something out of wood.
“Back when we were dating, we’d go to the river almost every weekend in the summer, and he’d always take a piece of driftwood and make something out of it,” said Marydean, who cleans up the wood shavings when he carves in the house. “I can’t fuss because I realized if I didn’t let him work in the house, I might never see him.”
His friends and family rave about the quality of woodworking items Fuller makes, from duck decoys and cross necklaces to walking canes and kitchen utensils. But he’s not in the business of profiting from his carvings or music.
“A friend once told me that if I specialized I could make a lot of money,” he said. “But then it would be work; it wouldn’t be fun. It would be like going to a regular job if I had to do that eight hours every day.”
However, there were times Fuller accepted other forms of payment.
“I can remember J. Burton calling me and saying, ‘Hey, Jack, let’s go play for the Cattlemen’s this weekend. They’re going to give us a caramel cake,’” White said.
For Fuller, the greatest reward is sharing the joy of music with the audience, including hundreds who will attend the Sucarnochee Folklife Festival and Revue, April 18.
“During the festival, people will bring their quilts and blankets and pile around the Sumter County Courthouse Square to hear the music,” said Gena Doggett Robbins, University of West Alabama spokesperson. “The music, the food and just being together, that’s what it’s all about.”
In its 11th year, the festival features cooking contests, musical performances, local artisans, storytelling and food at the courthouse from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To learn more about the festival, visit CenterForBlackBelt.org.
Visit YouTube.com/AlabamaFarmersFed for video of Fuller and White.