Ter­rell’s Tune Up


Steve Ter­rell on Rob­bie Fulks’ new al­bum, Up­land Sto­ries

Once again Rob­bie Fulks has graced this trou­bled land with a seem­ingly sub­dued, but ac­tu­ally pow­er­ful acous­tic al­bum. Like 2013’s Gone

Away Back­ward, Fulks’ new Up­land Sto­ries took me a few plays and more than a cou­ple of weeks be­fore the full im­pact whacked me over the head. Both al­bums sound nice and pretty from the get-go — Fulks’ voice has never sounded sweeter and his gui­tarpick­ing keeps get­ting bet­ter. But it’s the lyrics that, at least in my case, had to sit with me awhile be­fore they sneaked up on me.

Several of the songs here were in­spired by James Agee, who doc­u­mented the lives of De­pres­sion-era South­ern share­crop­pers in Let Us Now

Praise Fa­mous Men (1941). The open­ing song, “Alabama at Night,” for in­stance, is about Agee’s trip to the South in 1936. (“The old men at the road­house weren’t too po­lite to stare . ... The cam­era ’round my neck drew sus­pi­cious eyes to me/We were not there to talk, we were only there to see.”)

More pointed is the stark “Amer­ica Is a Hard Re­li­gion,” on which Fulks is ac­com­pa­nied only by banjo and, in the re­frain, a fid­dle. “Sent to a sav­age land, mother knows not why/Plant a seed in rocky soil and per­haps to die,” he sings. In an in­ter­view with The Blue­grass Sit­u­a­tion, Fulks cau­tioned against draw­ing ex­act com­par­isons between mod­ern poverty and the lives of 1930s share­crop­pers. But still, he ex­plains, the song “ar­tic­u­lates the harsh life and mind-set of a re­source­less per­son whose body hurts from work, who sac­ri­fices chil­dren to war, who can’t hope to change his or her prospects, who takes plea­sure in a fan­tasy of be­ing hap­pier af­ter death, and whose stoic com­plaints are a sort of art form.” As he sings in the song, “Amer­ica is a hard re­li­gion. Not just any­one can en­ter/Amer­ica is a hard re­li­gion. Some never do sur­ren­der.”

Not ev­ery­thing on Up­land Sto­ries is so heavy. There is sweet, if un­der­stated, hu­mor in “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man,” a cel­e­bra­tion of an el­derly rel­a­tive find­ing a new beau. “Katy Kay” is a dev­il­ish hill­billy love song that prob­a­bly would have fit in on ear­lier, fun­nier Fulks al­bums. Here he confesses, “When I see a pretty girl weep­ing, I run to her and fix it. When I see a pretty girl smil­ing, I run for the near­est exit.” The song “Sarah Jane” is an­other love song, this one fea­tur­ing a melody and fin­ger­pick­ing evo­ca­tion of Mis­sis­sippi John Hurt.

But let’s get back to the heav­i­ness. One of the sad­dest songs here is Fulks’ cover of Merle Kil­gore’s nos­tal­gic “Baby Rocked Her Dolly,” the story of an el­derly man in an “old folks” home who spends his time re­liv­ing sweet mem­o­ries of his chil­dren, who he rarely hears from these days, as young­sters.

There is noth­ing sweet or nos­tal­gic about “Never Come Home,” in­spired by an An­ton Chekhov story, which tells of a dy­ing man who re­turns to his old fam­ily home and im­me­di­ately re­grets it. “I had scarcely laid my bag down when my mis­judg­ment hit me square/ I was wel­comed like a guilty pris­oner, old griev­ances fouled the air.” He feels noth­ing but con­tempt for a bunch of re­li­gious rel­a­tives who come to visit, and he silently seethes as he hears fam­ily mem­bers get­ting drunk and bad-mouthing him. It’s clear he’s go­ing to die in help­less bit­ter­ness. “This land is run down and ragged. I should have never come home.”

Hard re­li­gion and hard truths. Up­land Sto­ries is burst­ing with both. It’s heart­en­ing how Rob­bie Fulks con­tin­ues to grow as an artist. Check out www.blood­shotrecords.com/artist/rob­bie-fulks.

Also rec­om­mended

▼ A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simp­son. Af­ter his break­through al­bum, Me­ta­mod­ern Sounds

in Coun­try Mu­sic, Simp­son had to have been un­der in­cred­i­ble pres­sure to pro­duce an­other equally amaz­ing CD. I’m not quite sure whether he’s done that. Me­ta­mod­ern Sounds took tra­di­tional honky-tonk/out­law coun­try and put it through a psychedelic fil­ter. And it worked, thanks mostly to Simp­son’s sin­cere de­liv­ery. Wisely, he didn’t at­tempt to cre­ate

Me­ta­mod­ern Sounds Vol­ume II. While there are scattered psychedelic touches on A Sailor’s Guide, this is a whole new an­i­mal. It’s a con­cept al­bum, a col­lec­tion of songs deal­ing with a new father — that would be Simp­son — ad­vis­ing his new­born son on how to nav­i­gate the metaphor­i­cal stormy seas of this planet.

Sturgill saved the worst for the first. The first cou­ple of songs on the al­bum pre­vent me from giv­ing

A Sailor’s Guide an un­qual­i­fied squeal of ap­proval. The first half of “Wel­come to Earth (Pol­ly­wog)” goes for baroque, sweet­ened with strings that come off pre­ten­tious in a Moody Blues kind of way. The good news is that on the sec­ond half, Simp­son’s new pals, the Dap-Kings (yes, Sharon Jones’ band) turn the song into a soul work­out. But the strings slither back on the next song, “Breaker’s Roar,” and that ini­tially made me won­der if the whole project was go­ing to be a Ken­tucky-fried Days of Fu­ture Past.

For­tu­nately not. On the next track, “Keep It Between the Lines,” not only do the Dap-Kings’ horns sound funky, the steel gui­tar solo is down­right cos­mic. This song might be one of the finest fu­sions of coun­try and soul since Al Green sang Kris Kristof­fer­son’s “For the Good Times.”

And there are plenty of tasty tracks here. “Oh Sarah” is a fer­vent love song that’s per­fect for Simp­son’s voice; there’s a cover of Nir­vana’s “In Bloom” that’s closer to Mus­cle Shoals than Seat­tle; and a rock­ing five-minute “Ball of Con­fu­sion”type protest song, called “Call to Arms,” de­cry­ing end­less war and id­iocy. (“No­body is lookin’ up to care about a drone/All too busy lookin’ down at our phone.”)

Hope­fully Sturgill will con­tinue his ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, keep­ing his feet on the ground and his head in what Patti Smith called the “sea of pos­si­bil­i­ties.” Sail over to www.sturgill­simp­son.com.

Several of the songs here were in­spired by James Agee, who doc­u­mented the lives of De­pres­sion-era South­ern share­crop­pers in Let Us Now Praise Fa­mous Men (1941).

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