With 13 albums in 20 years, Robbie Fulks is a singer and songwriter who deserves a large audience. Now over 50 years old, Fulks is a songwriter with life experience and wisdom to offer through his music, which is how many will perceive his newest album Upland Stories. An album that put musical production in the back seat in order to make room for storytelling and eloquent lyricism, Upland Stories is a look at the world through Robbie Fulks’ eyes. Songs full of nostalgia and longing for the time of youthful innocence, Fulks’ honest look at life makes for a great album full of story songs.
“Alabama At Night” is one of three songs on the album influenced by James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book details the desolate lifestyle of southern farmers during the Great Depression. “Alabama At Night” offers a view of the beauty surrounding the dusty fields and weary workers. Fulks’ writes about an out-of-towner who stops in town and is blown away by the beauty and peace of the night sky over Alabama. “Baby Rocked Her Dolly” details an old man recalling and sharing memories of his family singing and dancing together. Robbie Fulks does a great job with this cover of Frankie Miller’s song written by Merle Kilgore.
Fulks’ strength as a songwriter is capturing emotions, and “Never Come Home” best exemplifies that. It’s a story song that finds an old, dying man returning home for his final days. His presence at home is unwelcome from his family and the locals, and the man regrets his decision to spend his few remaining days at home. Fulks’ vocals perfectly capture the heartbreak of the song. “Sarah Jane” tells the story of a man who’s lonely as he continues to chase the wrong dreams. The man has had rotten luck in pursuit of his dreams, and he misses his home with the woman he loves.
Robbie Fulks brings in his bluegrass roots with “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man.” After the passing of her long time husband, Aunt Peg has a new boyfriend who’s a little quirky to the rest of family, who are only too eager to learn as little as possible about the guy. The lyrics aren’t anything special, but the bluegrass production of the song is great, and it’s a welcome upbeat number as most of the album has an acoustic production. Fulks’ recalls his mistakes and carelessness as a teenager in “Needed.” After falling in love with a girl, she gets pregnant and Fulks gets cold feet with their relationship. It’s a story that builds up heartbreak and regret, only to turn it on its head with the final verse.
Robbie Fulks sings of memories in “South Bend Soldiers On.” A man seasoned with life sees how life around him as changed. And as things continue to change, he relies more on his memories of the past for joy. The song paints a grim picture of memories and includes my favorite lyric on the whole album. “If all that we’re made of is the ghosts inside our head, who could blame us for pretending otherwise?”
The next two songs were also influenced from Let Us Praise Famous Men. “America Is A Hard Religion” is another bluegrass song. This song correlates directly with the book’s content as Fulks’ sings of the farmers struggling to find prosperity in the dusty fields. “A Miracle” focuses more on how the Great Depression also affected areas beside the south. The big cities aren’t as grand as they once were, and all anyone can do is hope for change. It’s interesting for Fulks to choose that book and time period to write a handful songs about, but he does a great job on spreading his focus and painting a complete picture with “Alabama At Night”, “America Is A Hard Religion”, and “A Miracle.”
“Sweet As Sweet Comes” is a jazzy and bluesy influenced song with a prominent upright bass line in the production mix. It’s a love song where Fulks sings to how much he loves his wife and wouldn’t change a thing about their life together. It’s a good love song and an honest sentiment from Fulks. “Katy Kay” is a rambunctious bluegrass song. Fulks sings of a man who only falls in love with sad girls he can fix, and this man is nervous for the day when Katy Kay will no longer be sad. The story is goofy, but it’s a fun song to listen to. Upland Stories comes to a close with the album’s longest song, “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals.” Fulks sings of his foolish escapades while living in North Carolina. He remembers the times he had growing up while he prepares to move on to the next chapter of his life.
Upland Stories is like an invitation into the mind of a man who’s lived a lot of life and has wisdom to pass on to the next generation. Songs about regret, mistakes, and lessons learned are what you’ll find in Robbie Fulks’ thirteenth album. Even with the great songwriting, the album still has its flaws, mainly in the production. There are times where the album falls into a monotoned acoustic production that bridges multiple songs, and there are a few times where Fulks’ voice is hard to hear in the mix of the music. But Robbie Fulks’ seasoned voice fits perfectly with the lyrics he’s written. Upland Stories is an album with rich stories and a unique songwriting style, but you have to devote yourself to the listen in order to fully grasp Robbie Fulks’ stories and wisdom.