My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Robbie Fulks – ‘Upland Stories’

upland storiesOne never knows quite what to expect from the eclectic singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks – or whether he is taking his own music entirely seriously. But in his 50s he seems to have found a new seriousness and an artistic maturity which cannot be ignored. His latest album is a collection of quietly poetic folk-country story songs which tells American stories in the way the great Tom T Hall did at the height of his career.

The opening ‘Alabama At Night’ sets the scene atmospherically. It is one of three songs inspired by James Agee’s 1941 book, ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, which documented the lives of three desperately poor sharecropping families in Alabama during the Great Depression; this one imagines Agee’s thoughts as he and his photographer first reached the area. The powerful ‘America Is A Hard Religion’ sounds like the gospel of that era, with a banjo-led accompaniment, although its lyric is a secular one, bewailing the tough life farming a “savage land”. ‘A Miracle’ is more subdued.

Other songs relate other stories of Southern life. The charming ‘Baby Rocked Her Dolly’ is an old man’s recollections of earlier life with his wife, raising their children, and is more universal in its theme.

‘Never Come Home’; Fulks’ vocals are a bit flat here but the song is interesting, a man facing the end of his marriage revisits his childhood home and finds no comfort:

I was welcomed like a guilty prisoner
Old grievances fouled the air
400 miles mean nothing
One man’s troubles are his own
The land is run down and ragged
I should have never come home

The protagonist of the wistful ‘Sarah Jane’ is also longing for home and the past. ‘South Bend Soldiers On’ and ‘Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals’ continue the theme of leaving home far behind.

The cheerfully observational ‘Aunt Peg’s New Old Man’ tells of family members meeting a widow’s new other half (who thinks Earl Scruggs’ banjo style far too new-fangled).

The gently paced and subtly narrated ‘Needed’ narrates an 18 year old’s first, intense, encounter with love, betrayed when he doesn’t stand by her when she gets pregnant. Grows up with fatherhood, cautionary tale for his tale#

When you’re really needed
You can rise to meet it
Or you can fall …

She longed to keep it
I said no I had my future to think of
In her darkest hour she learned
What young men won’t do for love

Needed
Something about “needed”
Pointed straight at my freedom like a loaded gun
Needed
When you’re really needed some rise to meet it
and some of us run

He eventually marries and grows up when he becomes a father and “better days began”, and offers his teenage son this cautionary tale, hoping

That you will steer past shallow freedoms
As you follow your own star

‘Sweet As Sweet Comes’ is a straightforward love song; ‘Katy Kay’ is a bit quirkier with its traditional jug band style and lyric about being attracted to crying girls.

The album’s main flaw is that Fulks’s diction is sometimes a bit unclear (and his voice isn’t the greatest to start with), and the lyrics aren’t always as clear as they deserve to be. But this is a serious, ambitious album with a real artistic vision. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it has a lot to offer.

Grade: A-

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