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. He lets the strings and the lyrics speak for themselves.
Fulks has released a baker’s dozen solo records over the past 20 years, and each one is a gem. Whether he’s taking on the oeuvre of Michael Jackson country-style on a non-official disc from his website or offering original songs on a major label, Fulks’ music reveals a sensitive intelligence, keen wit, and a lively sense of humor. He may sing about ordinary life, but as he puts it on “A Miracle”, it is “the telling makes it lyrical”. He turns tales about returning home to die, becoming an adult, the majesty of love, and the shared dreams and dramas of our lives into art through his talents as a writer, singer, and player.
His songs are nominally located in the American South; Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and the like, but they really exist in our shared imaginations. Place is where we think we are. It’s unclear what specifically the title Upland Stories means. “Upland” is a slippery term and can mean anything from just “the country” to “the high ground” as in the hills. Judging by the 12 songs on the new album, it appears that both definitions can metaphorically apply. This is country music in that the land itself operates as more than just the setting but is a microcosm of the world. And Fulks is aware of the higher (re: spiritual) connections between an individual and the world. There is a moral voice here that proclaims the instinctual desire to be alone and yet to be part of a group as the necessary condition of life.
In particular, several of the tracks here mine the tension between being free and being bound by family ties. Fulks notes that it is enough to be “Needed”. We grow and change out of our need for others. He doesn’t preach this. Hell is not other other people. The opposite is more often true. His stories suggest how much richer we are when we are with others, as strange as each of us are.
So it doesn’t matter if he’s singing about his aunt’s new old husband, an old man reminiscing in a nursing home, or the girls from Carolina. We are all a bunch of weirdos and better off for it. Of course, if Fulks wasn’t such a good songwriter, wonderful guitarist, and marvelous singer, this wouldn’t matter. It’s not that what Fulks offers is something new. He understands these lessons have been learned by every generation and is part of the traditions from which we have emerged. His artistry lies in how he does it, with talent, humor, and grace. He’s the real deal; the king of country music just needs to be crowned. The fact that he probably would refuse the honor is part of what makes him so freaking good.
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