SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — Ben Fuller returned to Vermont this past December and played several shows, one of which was a worship service led by John and Betty Nunnikhoven of Church At Prison Inc. at Southern State Correctional Facility (SSCF) in Springfield.
“It’s one of the most powerful things I have ever been a part of,” Fuller said.
“I think the guys were very moved. His music comes down to where they live. He reminds me a lot of Johnny Cash. He sings songs about things that are very real to people. Ben has that same talent, he is very real,” said Pastor John Nunnikhoven.
In an interview with the Eagle Times, Fuller discussed his views on the prison system, where his career has taken him and his first album, “Witness,” available Feb. 26. The artist said the 10-track release is about the good and bad, the risks he has taken and the credence that he keeps finding in his day-to-day life, including his personal struggles after losing friends through addiction. At one point, addiction almost made him lose himself.
“There isn’t any difference between most of us and the incarcerated, except that they are in jail because they got caught,” said Fuller.
Fuller has noticed a lack of counsel when navigating and leaving the prison system, a reality that he said motivated him to speak openly about his views on the cycles of incarceration through his music. This made it especially meaningful to play his music live at SSCF.
“There are not enough people guiding these folks on the outside. There is no exit plan. So when they get out there is no training there is no support and then they get dropped off in the community and there is no re-entry for them into society,” Fuller said. “So they are lost. They are scared. They get back into drugs and back into violence and they end up right back in prison again.”
Fuller said when he first left his job to play music — although it was out of faith — he had yet to find the faith he has now.
“I was baptized at the Church of the City on Nov. 10,” said Fuller, who explained that he was ready to go public with his own struggles and his new faith which is very evident on his new album.
While some would find it too hard to talk openly and honestly about one’s struggles, Fuller finds strength instead. He lost his best friend and his girlfriend to opiates — which he discusses in his song “Me & Katelyn” — and also admits that his own battle with drugs and alcohol. Now, he wants people to hear his story.
“I sing it because music brings people together where other things fail,” Fuller said. “I was drinking and doing cocaine on and off for seven or eight years.”
The response to his pivot from landscaper to country singer to ministering to audiences through song in bars, prisons, hospitals and social gatherings has been tough because he said although his heart is the same his life has changed and it’s hard for people to believe.
“Fuller ain’t drinking anymore? He’s drinking sparkly water with a lemon? People were surprised when I sang my new songs,” he said about his crossover from country Americana to more faith-based lyrics. “They didn’t see me leaving Tootsie’s on the Nashville strip, driving through four lanes of traffic and waking up wondering how I got home. I’m not ashamed to tell people about it, it’s part of my life. It’s part of my story. This is where I’m at now.”
Rewinding to 12 years ago, Fuller learned to play the guitar in secret after asking his roommate to teach him when he was enrolled in Randolph Technical College in 2007.
Ten years later in 2017, under the weight of the shifting ground of his life, he started playing his songs at campfires for friends who didn’t know he had a secret musical talent or that he was writing his own songs.
The last decade of Fuller’s life has been about shaping the wilderness of his twenties and losing his best friend in a fatal overdose in 2017. A few months later, his relationship collapsed under the weight of his longtime girlfriend’s growing addiction. They then parted ways.
After writing “Dirt Road To Nashville” in July of 2018, he took a blind leap and decided to quit his job, sell his house and move to Nashville to focus on his music.
The pivotal litmus test results came when his popularity expanded rapidly beyond Vermont through the social network almost overnight.
“My best friend, Selena Marvel, posted a video on her Facebook and overnight it received 1,000 views,” Fuller said. “Then she set up a music page and 6,000 followers grew in less than a few months.”
Fuller said everything changed and his path took over where tragedy had once taken him captive.
His song, “Me & Katelyn,” about the fractured relationship with his girlfriend was at 133,000 streams on Spotify four weeks ago and has now reached 141,000 streams.
Fuller said the double barrel of loss continued parallel to his growth as a musician and pushed him to the place he is today.
Close to three years ago, with no direction in sight except the valley between his job as a landscape architect and an unshakable dream of success as a country music singer-songwriter, he put his house up for sale.
In less than a month, he sold his house by word-of-mouth conversation to a woman who was coincidentally moving from Nashville to Vermont. It sold during the meeting with his realtor by way of someone eavesdropping on the conversation.
“I was talking to my real estate agent and someone randomly said they knew a buyer,” Fuller said. “It sold in one month on August 31. After that, I met a local Vermonter who needed a roommate in Nashville who happened to be a professional photographer.”
Out of this a friendship and a valuable alliance formed with Lyndsie Lord, who began handling the photography aspect of his journey.
It has been two years since Ben Fuller took a leap of faith, left a high paying job as a landscape architect, took his six string Boulder Creek electric acoustic guitar moved to Nashville, Tennessee to make a living playing his music.
“I went from making $35 an hour to $35 a day in tips,” said Fuller about his pivotal move from a safe high paying job to busking on the streets of Nashville.
Mona Frye has been following Ben Fuller’s journey and she said her first experience was hearing him play at The Sumner House when he first started playing live and then again at The Turning Point Recovery Center.
“He was incredible. Combine recovery, faith and his writing is definitely altered. He has a lot of wisdom. He is definitely going to go far. He is hitting the ground running,” Frye said. “I’ve seen him since his conversion, if you will, at The Remix on New Year’s Eve and he just brought it all home. He has a great sense of humor and his stories were priceless. His story about playing for Randy Travis at his book signing was incredible.”
Fuller still sings for Randy Travis and on Wednesday he sang “Three Wooden Crosses” with Travis by his side at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in a studio that is one of 12 different studios founded by Ryan Seacrest.
Jim Neilsen owns the The Remix Coffee Bar and Lounge and has booked Fuller several times for live music. To Neilsen, Fuller’s New Year’s Eve show was a memorable one.
“There is a collaboration forged between us helping people who are struggling with drug addiction,” Neilsen said. “Personally, I was inspired because not only did he share his music but he shared his story. It’s inspiring for people in our audience to hear his story because of their past struggles and people who might still be struggling with drugs and alcohol.”