Before Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton, there was Robbie Fulks: a hardcore alt-country sensation, writing subversive songs like his Nashville anti-Valentine “Fuck This Town,” “She Took A Lot of Pills (and Died)” and the religion-quaffing “God Isn’t Real.” With a Buck Owens Bakersfield beat, this was “punk goes old-school beer joint” with the audacity to throw down. That Fulks didn’t ascend to Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams’ heights mystified those in the know. But in some ways, that’s not as mystifying as the angry young writer/hard country secessionist evolving to carve album arcs that draw upon Anton Chekov, Walter Agee or Javier Marias.
Chicago-based songwriter Robbie Fulks enters into Upland Stories, his 12th album) via the descriptive, late-night ruminations of James Agee, whose 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men — about a 1936 trip with photographer Walker Evans documenting poverty in the South — inspired three of the songs on the new album: opener "Alabama At Night," sparse banjo and fiddle tune "America Is A Hard Religion" and atmospheric, poetic "A Miracle. " All three are showstoppers, if slightly awkward ones, thanks to verbose and archaic, hard-working language. What's impressive is how well integrated these Agee-inspired tunes are with their more modern cousins, including a wonderfully fresh cover of Merle Kilgore's nostalgic "Baby Rocked Her Dolly," which, considering Frankie Miller recorded it in 1959, acts as a bridge between the eras traversed on the album, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and on to the present.
Robbie Fulks is a brilliant songwriter and a very funny man, but that sense of humor sometimes hindered his work as much as it helped. His biting wit tended to undercut the humanity of his more serious songs, a quality that kept some of his earlier albums from reaching as deep as they could and should. Fulks seemed to have overcome this flaw on 2013's Gone Away Backward.
In a perfect world, Robbie Fulks would be crowned the king of country music. He’s the pure product of America gone crazy. His writes marvelous story songs that mine traditional styles and show a keen understanding of the changes in our personal, social, and historical lives. He’s a virtuoso acoustic guitar player and a terrific singer who knows how to hit an emotional note without affectation.
If Upland Stories sounds like a book title, it’s probably no coincidence. Fulks lists authors James Agee, Amy Hempel and Flannery O’Connor alongside songwriters like Dan Penn, Al Anderson and Jesse Winchester as his “stimulants” for this album. In fact, the tunes here hold a rather literature quality. Upland Stories” finds Fulks reflecting on aging, lost youth and life’s often unexpected entanglements in a dozen vividly written character studies that could have easily been turned into short stories instead of songs.
The first half of 2016 has seen a number of major country releases — some stellar (Loretta Lynn, Brandy Clark), some not-so-stellar (Keith Urban, Blake Shelton) — but it’s emerging and under-the-radar artists who have made the biggest impact on the genre lately. Whether it’s through sonic ….
Slightly grizzled on the cover, Robbie Fulks now finds himself a veteran singer-songwriter capable of telling haunting stories that reach into old weird Americana with a sense of life lived simply yet richly. Upland is the southern region of Appalachia, close to where Fulks was raised. These tunes reflect the mountain music it spawned, including the fiddle-driven "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals" and plaintive "Never Come Home." A continuation of the warm folk, fiddle, and banjo style of 2013's Gone Away Backward, here Fulks continues proving he's one of music's best song craftsmen.