Friday, April 01, 2016

Country's Finest Novelist

Category:  Album Review 

Upland Stories, the spectacular new album by Robbie Fulks, isn't likely to become southern Chamber of Commerce fodder.  It is a collection of beautifully detailed novels songs set mostly in the South, painting brutally real pictures of social and personal life.  The album contains some of Fulks' best songwriting ever, and that is saying something about this man who stands alone as country music's finest novelist-posing-as-a-songwriter.

Robbie Fulks' brilliant new collection of musical novels,
Upland Stories.  Courtesy of Bloodshot Records.

"Alabama At Night," based on James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an honest look at the toll the Depression took on people in the South, opens the album.  Sadly, it's hard to tell if this is just a musical summary of Agee's 1941 book or observations from last month.  When the Louvin Brothers paid homage to their home state in the song "Alabama" they sang of "your beautiful highways are carved through the mountains where loved ones do wait...and the 'welcome home' sign hanging over the gate."  The picture Fulks paints is far from the postcard that Ira and Charlie depicted.  "Poor's no sacred song," Fulks sings with quiet anger, "poor is a disease."

The first "story" in the album moves from the general feel of the south to the familial one.  "Baby Rocked Her Dolly," a Merle Kilgore composition that was a top 15 hit for Frankie Miller in 1960, is a perfect set-up for the following song on the album.  (In fact, the tracking on Upland Stories seems to deliberately situate the songs in an order where they feed on one another, turning songs into scenes in a minutely-detailed mini-movie.)  An old man in a nursing home remembers the good times of home ("My sister did the dance and brother beat the drum and baby rocked her dolly") and his late wife ("that wife of mine, God rest her soul, she's gone on before me, I bet she's told the Lord about all the times our house was filled with folly").

Similar memories of home is probably what drove the cancer-stricken protagonist of "Never Come Home" to return home ("not that the old place was the answer, just one last thing that I could try"), only to quickly realize it was a terrible mistake ("I was welcomed like a guilty prisoner, old grievances fouled the air").  The narrator has to deal with family members who, like the strangers of "Alabama At Night," are staring instead of showing any interest.  As he dies the last things he hears are not the comforting words of his family but the drunken backbiting ("black vultures gathering at my tomb") who "will bury me with all speed" without any emotion.

Unquestionably the highlight of the album is Needed."  The tune is a deeply autobiographical song where Fulks gives fatherly advice to his 18-year-old son (who left for college last year).  This song is breathtaking.  It is rare for a songwriter to boldly lay his soul naked to the world as Fulks does in this song, detailing the nonchalance of a young man more interested in his own carefree life than a girlfriend's pregnancy, then later realizing the joys of "commitment" to marriage and parenting and the accompanying maturity it brings ("when you were born is when I became a man").  "Needed" will hit you between the eyes, knock you off your feet, and not let you back up until you've shed a tear or 20.  After you've recovered from the emotional wringer this song puts you through you'll go back for more.

"America is a Hard Religion" harkens back to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which looked long and hard at tenant farming in the South during the Great Depression ("you plant a seed in rocky soil and perhaps to die").  This is the only song on the album where Fulks lets loose vocally, sounding almost like a preacher extolling the societal sins of the nation.  He's quieter on the third song about Agee, "Miracle," which even references the Brothers of the Holy Cross, a Catholic order that ran one of the boarding schools Agee attended as a child.

Another microcosm of the same theme, "South Bend Soldiers On," is the only song not explicitly set in the South, but rather in "this Midwest that I love" (although the chorus of "keep your burdens from your neighbor and leave a good name when you're gone" is stereotypical southern philosophy).  It's also another song about the departure of a grown son from the nest.

The close of the novel album is "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals."  The song, Fulks has said in concert before performing it, was inspired partly by attending his high school reunion ("bad mistake," he quipped once).  The song is primarily about teenage years spent in North Carolina, where the protagonist was "a medium to poor boyfriend and pretty good house painter" while in search of his first sexual experience.  Near the end he's finished his flashback and is in the present, contemplating buying a Cadillac with the money he'll make when "I cash in the farm after mama dies" and "just ride till the Pacific meets the bumper."  He concludes this trip through his past -- and through the entire trip through the "upper South" -- admitting he's not bitter.  "Chapel Hill hasn't done me wrong.  It was fine until it wasn't."

Near the end of the fun romp "Katy Kay" Fulks makes an interesting guitar run that causes him laugh as he delivers the lyrics.  Instead of going back into the studio to "correct" it, he left it on the album.  That's a great indication that everything on this album is real:  the gritty, frequently depressing truths in life depicted in the lyrics; and, most significantly, the talent.

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