My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Robbie Fulks

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

Something about “needed”
Pointed straight at my freedom like a loaded gun
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-

Album Review: Robbie Fulks – ‘Gone Away Backward’

gone away backwardChicago-based singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks has long skated along the boundaries between alt-country and retro-hillbilly with an often-ironic, sometimes-serious slant. The width, and sometimes, eccentricity, of his artistic vision has made his work a bit hit and miss for me, but his latest effort is by far my favourite of everything he has recorded, and he is taking things seriously here.

For the bulk of this album his inspiration is the deepest roots of country music. The arrangements are mainly acoustic, some with a bluegrass feel, others with an older sound. There are some well-written thoughtful songs, and while Fulks isn’t the best vocalist he is perfectly capable on this kind of material. There are a couple of traditional instrumentals which fit in nicely with the new songs, all written by Fulks. The musicians in general do stellar work, with some particularly fine fiddle from Jenny Scheinman.

The outstanding track is the opening ‘I’ll Trade You Money For Wine’. The song is written from the point of view of a once-wealthy alcoholic who has lost everything, and is a masterpiece . The post-divorce ‘When You Get To The Bottom’ is also excellent, with close harmony from Ron Spears giving it a classic country feel.

‘Sometimes The Grass Is Really Greener’ is a very good straight bluegrass song, reminding us that Fulks started out in bluegrass band Special Consensus. It tells the story of a bluegrass musician from the Blue Ridge Mountains who seeks success in the city, only to find,

The record company man confessed he liked me
Oh but he’d have to shave a few rough edges down
Cut my hair like Brooks and Dunn’s
Trade the banjo for some drums
Cause no one would buy that old high lonesome sound

Now I don’t know just what this deal’s got me
I’ve gained not a fan and lost the ones I had
I poured my heart right through my sleeve
Singing a song that I don’t believe
I believe I’ll go back home to mom and dad

Also very much in a traditional bluegrass vein is the lovely story song ‘Rose Of The Summer’, with more fine harmonies. The high lonesome ‘Long I Ride’ is another very authentic sounding song musically with Celtic influences in the backing.

The gentle ‘That’s Where I’m From’ is how to write a thoughtful, resonant song with real depth about growing up in the country. The more downbeat ‘Where I Fell’ reports a small town’s decline with a wearied, clear-eyed honesty and a very stripped down backing.

‘Guess I Got It Wrong’ has a singer-songwriter country-folk feel, in the vein of Townes Van Zandt. A quietly understated melody and chastened lyric about finding love doesn’t work out.

The very slow and stripped down ‘Imogene’ has less appeal to me, although it is certainly interesting; it seems more redolent of 1920s jazz than country. ‘The Many Disguises Of God’ plods musically with some rather weird and ugly experimental sounds which didn’t work for me at all; it also sounds as though it was recorded in too low a key for Fulks’s voice.

Overall, however, this mature work is the best thing Fulks has done to date.

Grade: A-

Country Heritage Redux: Webb Pierce

An updated and expanded version of an article originally published by The 9513:

It has been twenty years since Webb Pierce passed away in February 1991, about six months short of his 70th birthday, and yet he still has his diehard legions of fans. For the second half of the twentieth century, Webb Pierce was the most successful recording artist in county music with his records topping the Billboard charts for a total of 113 weeks, with Buck Owens second with 82 weeks at #1. George Strait finally passed Buck Owens in 2007 with 83 weeks at #1, a total still growing, albeit slowly.

Like Eddy Arnold, during the late 1940s, Webb Piece dominated the 1950s, particularly from 1952 to 1957, the period in which all his Billboard #1s occurred. This dominance occurred despite Pierce not having any chart records until after he turned thirty years old.

Unlike the smooth Eddy Arnold, whose vocals (and personality) had appeal across many segments of society, Webb Pierce was a country music performer with one core style. You either liked Pierce or you hated him, but you could not ignore him. He sang in a high nasal tenor that will never come back into vogue in mainstream country music (although the style remains viable in bluegrass), but he selected great songs and could sell even the most maudlin lyric. He was one of the first stars to wear “Nudie Suits,” the colorful rhinestone-studded western wear that became de rigueur for country stars for the next 35 years. His song “Slowly” was the first country hit to feature the pedal steel guitar as played by Bud Isaacs. Then there was the famous guitar-shaped swimming pool.

Like many performers of his era, years were subtracted from his real age to make him seem younger to the fan base. Most articles written about Pierce during his heyday gave his date of birth as July 8, 1926, an error which was not corrected until the 1980s. He never penned an autobiography, and I’ve never seen a full biography of him, so biographical information remains sketchy. It is known that he had his own radio show on KMLB in 1938 and served in the Army for three years during WWII before moving to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944, where he supported himself for some years as a shoe salesman at the local Sears store.

Pierce’s first recordings were on the Four Star label in 1949. By 1950 he was appearing at the Louisiana Hayride – a serious competitor to the Opry during the late ’40s and ’50s–where he quickly became a featured performer. Pierce and Hayride founder Horace Logan formed Pacemaker Records as a vehicle to issue his records. None of these records became national hits, but they sold well enough that Decca inked Pierce to a contract in 1951.

The third Decca single, “Wondering,” established Pierce as a major star. It reached No. 1 for four weeks and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. The song also provided Pierce with the nickname “The Wondering Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his career. The next two singles, “That Heart Belongs to Me” and “Backstreet Affair,” also reached No. 1 for multiple weeks. This was followed by four more top ten records and the eight week No. 1 “It’s Been So Long” (the flip side “I’m Walking the Dog” reached No. 9).

For many artists, a record that reached No. 1 for eight weeks would be a career record, but Pierce was just getting started. Released on October 24, 1952, “There Stands the Glass” was one of six double-sided hits (with the “B” side reaching top ten status) to reach No. 1 for ten or more weeks. A recent CMT poll of Greatest Drinking Songs had “There Stands the Glass” at No. 11, but they are wrong – it is the ultimate drinking song, the ultimate expression of the angst that accompanies those who are trying to forget:

There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother I’m on my way

“There Stands the Glass” was followed by “Slowly” (No. 1 for 17 weeks), “Even Thou” (No. 1 for only 2 weeks), “More and More” (No. 1 for 10 weeks), “In the Jailhouse Now” (21 weeks at the top), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks at No. 1) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks at the top).

Pierce moved to the Grand Old Opry in 1955, but soon departed because of the requirement that members had to perform twenty-six Saturdays annually to maintain membership. For Pierce, who was commanding thousands of dollars for his personal appearances, this meant losing considerable income. Since he became a star without the Opry’s help, Pierce correctly figured that the monetary loss would not be offset by the prestige of continued Opry membership. Unfortunately, he burned many bridges when he left the Opry.

The onslaught of Rock and Roll in 1955-1956 destroyed many country music careers and put a damper on many other careers. According to Billboard, Pierce’s last No. 1 record was “Honky Tonk Song” in mid-1957, but Pierce adapted and survived. He added drums to his records and picked more up-tempo material, including songs from younger writers such as Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis. He continued to chart top ten records for another decade (other charts had three of his records reach No. 1 during the period of 1959 to 1967). His record of “Bye Bye Love,” recorded at the same time as the Everly Brothers version, was a top ten hit, and the Mel Tillis penned “I Ain’t Never” stayed at No. 2 on Billboard for nine weeks (it dis reach #1 on Cashbox). It was kept out of Billboard’s top spot by Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and The Browns “The Three Bells.”

Webb’s last top ten hit in 1967 with “Fool, Fool, Fool” which reached #1 on Record World, #3 on Cashbox and #7 on Billboard. Pierce continued to record for Decca from 1967 to 1972, then for Plantation for two years where he had a minor hit with “The Good Lord Giveth (and Uncle Sam Taketh Away),” a song which deserved a better fate than missing the top forty. After 1976, Pierce – having invested wisely in real estate and music publishing – retired from performing (he had been semi-retired for years already). He would record only twice more.

In 1982, Willie Nelson was able to drag Webb into the recording studio for a duet album, which puzzled some since Webb wasn’t one of Willie’s former label mates or Texas compadres, but the recordings make clear the strong influence Pierce had on Willie’s pinched vibrato and vocal phrasing. In 1985 Pierce got together with two old Louisiana buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, to record an album called Four Legends. All of the songs on the collection were old Webb Pierce hits.

He died on February 24, 1991 of a heart attack, but would likely have died soon of cancer anyway. The old guard of the Nashville establishment shamefully denied him entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame until ten years after his death. He should have been inducted around 1977.

According to Billboard, Webb Pierce was the No. 1 country artist of the 1950s and the No. 7 artist of the 1960s. He charted 96 songs, 80 of which reached the Top 40, and 54 of which reached the Top Ten. His thirteen number one records stayed there for a cumulative total of 113 weeks–second all-time only to Eddy Arnold with 145 weeks (86 of Eddy’s weeks occurred during the 1940s). His 1955 recording of the old Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” is the third ranking county single of all time with 21 weeks at No. 1 and 34 weeks in the Top Ten.

Amusingly, Carl Smith, a Columbia recording artist (and 4th most popular country artist of the 1950s), recorded an album titled There Stands The Glass in 1964 in which he recorded twelve of Webb’s hits and never mentioned him on the album cover (which has several paragraphs of liner notes) or the record label (except on the songwriter credits of several songs)!

Much of Webb’s recorded output has been unavailable for years. Most of the albums on vinyl are typical Nashville product – one or two hit singles, some covers of other artists’ hits and some filler. If you like the songs listed on the album cover, you’ll probably like the album. Webb With A Beat from 1960 may be his strongest album and shows Webb transitioning his sound to a more modern approach, re-recording several of his older hits in the process. If you find the album Webb Pierce’s Greatest Hits, released on Decca in 1968, it is a really fine album (in fact, the first Webb Pierce album I ever purchased) but it is mostly re-recordings of his earlier hits as Decca had all of its major stars re-record their older hits to take advantage of modern stereo technology. If you find a copy of the Plantation album Webb Pierce and Carol Channing, please do Webb’s family a big favor – buy it and destroy it. You cannot imagine how bad Carol’s vocals are on this album!

There are now quite a few CDs available of Webb’s pre-1958 output (European copyrights expire in 50 years so in Europe those recordings can be released without paying royalties), but very few of the post 1958 recordings are available, although they are slowly beginning to appear:

1. 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Webb — a budget collection, digitally re-mastered. Only 12 songs but they are the biggies in their original versions. The Plantation recordings have been endlessly leased out to other labels – unless I know the source, I assume that the off-label recordings of Webb are leased from Plantation.
2. Webb Pierce – Greatest Hits: Finest Performances — these are re-makes recorded for Plantation during the middle 1970s. They are not bad, but they lack the sparkle of the original recordings and Pierce’s voice had dropped in the interim.
3. King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Master Tapes — released by the Country Music Foundation in 2000, this was the first effort to get the original Decca hits back in print. Eighteen hits, great sound and a useful booklet. Now out of print, but it can be located with a little effort.
4. A Proper Introduction to Webb Pierce: Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy — British reissue label, 28 tracks, mostly pre-Decca material, some with overdubs. Worth owning. Apparently out of print but still can be found.
5. The Wandering Boy (1951-1958) [BOX SET] — The Holy Grail for Webb Pierce fans — a deluxe Bear Family boxed set — four CDs, 114 tracks with great sound and an interesting, but somewhat disjointed booklet. Covers all of Webb’s recordings through 1958 with a few alternate takes of songs such as “Slowly” where you can see the Pierce style developing.
6. Hux Records out of the UK recently released Fallen Angel / Cross Country – a two-fer which collects a pair of early 1960s albums. This album might be considered post-peak as far as the hits were concerned but Webb was still at his vocal peak
7. Audio Fidelity had a two-fer of Sweet Memories / Sands of Gold from the mid-1960s available about fifteen years ago. Audio Fidelity remixed the two album to push Pierce’s vocals further front in the mix and suppressed the background vocals and strings, greatly improving both albums. This one is hard to find, but you might get lucky.

And don’t forget Caught in the Webb, a tribute album released in 2002, produced and organized by Gail Davies, featuring 21 of Webb’s hits performed by guests, including: Dale Watson, The Jordanaires, Mandy Barnett, Charley Pride, Rosie Flores, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Fulks, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, Matt King, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury Band, Lionel Cartwright, Guy Clark, Gail Davies, Willie Nelson, BR549, Billy Walker, Kevin Welch, Trent Summar, Pam Tillis, Deborah Pierce (Webb’s daughter) and the Carol Lee Singers. Proceeds of this album benefited the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Center.

Album Review: Dallas Wayne – ‘I’ll Take The Fifth’

Dallas Wayne, I'll Take The FifthDallas Wayne is probably best known these days as a satellite radio DJ, but over the past ten years he has produced a handful of excellent country albums of his own.  The latest is I’ll Take The Fifth, released with little fanfare on March 3rd by Smith Entertainment, which seems to be basically a self-release with distribution.  Dallas has a deep, booming bass-baritone voice which is very distinctive, and his approach is pretty solid honky-tonk country with an edge.  He is also an excellent songwriter, who has composed all the songs on this release, more than half of them solo.  They vary from good to great, although perhaps none is as unforgettable as the controversial title track of Dallas’ last album, ‘I’m Your Biggest Fan’. If I have a complaint concerning the material, it is that several of the tracks on I’ll Take The Fifth have appeared on previous albums.

One of these is probably the track most likely to attract outside attention, as Dallas reinvents the thoroughly enjoyable ‘Straighten Up And Lie Right’, previously recorded on 1998’s The Invisible Man, as a duet with Sunny Sweeney.  The song works perfectly as a duet with Sunny cast as the sceptical wife (threatening to “loosen up those teeth you’ve been lying through”) and Dallas as the guy failing to offer an imaginative alibi if he can’t manage a convincing one, and the two singers’ voices contrast very effectively.  ‘I’m Gonna Break Some Promises Tonight’, another excellent honky-tonker, has a slightly heavier production here than it did on 2001’s Here I Am In Dallas, with sax and horns.  I like the pacy swinging feel of ‘If These Walls Could Cry’ from the same album (and it’s a well-constructed lyric), but redoing it feels a little pointless.  ‘Invisible Man’ is probably the most dispensable re-cut here, as it drags melodically, but even this has some good lines (by leaving, “I’ve finally found a way to make you happy, funny, I’ve been tryin’ for years”).

The other misstep comes with the closing track, ‘Something Inside’, where Dallas overdoes the deep growl of his bottom register, taking it a key too low and sounding flat.  It was probably a deliberate choice, to give a doom-laden feel to a rather depressing song, but I didn’t care for the effect.

A number of the songs (including the aforementioned ‘Straighten Up And Lie Right’) are co-written with alt-country artist Robbie Fulks, who produced one of Dallas’s earlier albums, and these are among the best songs on this record.  My favorite was ‘I Never Did Like Planes’, which sees the protagonist literally flying away from a failed relationship in Tennessee, with some beautifully observed lyrics and a very singable tune.  The chorus runs, “I never did like planes, but I’m not afraid to fly, I guess we’d all have wings if God loved goodbyes, I can’t believe that we’re all through, I never did like planes but I sure (still) love you.”  This could easily be a hit single for a traditionally-minded artist.  The pair’s ‘Crawlin’ Is Easy’ is another very good song as a husband sees the error of his ways (“when a man is wrong he knows he’s wrong”), with a solid hook (“when you ain’t got a leg to stand on”) and good tune.  ‘Fixin’ To Fall’ is the least remarkable of the collaborations with Fulks, with some rather silly lyrics and forced rhymes (“I’m fixin’, to fall head first for a sweet little vixen” is not even the silliest line) but it has a nice groove and is fun.

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