There’s a strong vein of Southern literacy that thrums through Robbie Fulks’s Upland Stories. The characters in these songs tread the same ground as Hazel Motes or Rufus Follet. They tell their stories with graceful turns of phrase and through Fulks’s wonderful twangy tenor: sometimes high lonesome, sometimes quietly, just in your ear.
Three of the tracks on Upland Stories are actually based on James Agee’s 1936 trip to Alabama that inspired his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. “Alabama At Night” is richly drawn with a sprinkling of details, moving and elegant in its simplicity. “A hundred words mean nothing / but what a thousand others say they might”—it feels like a folk song, and so intimate. “America Is A Hard Religion” is the raw opposite of “A Miracle,” both inspired by Agee. “A Miracle” is a delicately sung, arresting vocal melody that ebbs and flows. “America Is A Hard Religion” is coarse and naked.
Robbie Fulks paints with words, making you feel heavy things with great subtlety. “Needed” catches the listener immediately with the opening lines and then proceeds to quietly rip out your heart and make you ugly cry. “Never Come Home” is crushing and honest. The protagonist “took a chill last April” and is now returning home with cancer, and is seeing himself through someone else’s eyes. It’s poignant but with resigned anger. He creates a portrait of the extended family: “With self-regard these Baptists fairly shine.” It’s dark and he’s “sick and torn from wife and children / I should have never come home.” He repeats “One man’s troubles are his own” and his anguish is palpable. The closer, “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” is a beauty, hushed and evocative (“down where the anchormen say y’all” is a delightful nugget).
There are, of course, lighter moments on Upland Stories. The gentle and warm “Baby Rocked Her Dolly” is sung from the perspective of an old man as he reminiscences over pedal steel. “Aunt Peg’s Old Man” is ancient feeling, a folky jig of a song with a hit of harmony and rambling banjo. It’s completely charming. “Katy Kay,” too, feels classic. The bluegrass inflected track is wonderfully loose and fun.
Upland Stories is an exquisite album. Rural stories, songs about fading ways of life, all told in Robbie Fulks’s authentic voice. It feels like an instant classic record, one that captures a singer/songwriter at the peak of his powers.
Upland Stories was released on April 1 through Bloodshot Records.