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.
With his old-timey Upland Stories, Fulks matures into an important voice. Now seriously middle-aged, he comes into a deeper wisdom that allows merging the raw Appalachian holler of “America Is A Hard Religion”—as jolting from the honk of his turpentine-soaked bray as the truths he offers about the state of the nation—with the sweet acoustic “Baby Rocked Her Dolly,” a Currier & Ives etching of backwoods domestic ideals and the randy bluegrass strummer “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man” or the whispery love for “Sarah Jane.”
Not that everything is bliss. The hushed shuffle “Never Come Home” is a redemption that doesn’t realize, hard truths betraying the bucolic arrangement of acoustic guitar basted with steel. In the even quieter “Needed,” teenage love and hormones turns into complications, betrayals and retrospective realizations of what matters.
“Needed” defines Fulks’ gift: the O. Henry turns of a great song. A teenage pregnancy, a boy who can’t man up, the way what seems so urgent over time can pale. “When you’re really needed, some of us rise to meet it/ Some of us run…” For many that would be the end of the story, but Fulks tames regrets and paints the fuller picture: letting his adolescent daughter understand his failings, offering, “When you were born, that’s when I became a man.”
In a shallower world, Fulks could’ve been James Taylor. He has a voice that is warm and believable like Taylor; his reliance on classic American roots idioms offers the same cozy hominess that is comforting in the darkness. But like John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Jason Isbell, he can’t leave well enough alone—preferring to dig deeper, unearth conflicts and the ways we deceive ourselves.
The closing “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Girls” offers a benediction. With reeling fiddles, strummed acoustic, it suggests the fading of a young dreamer and the reality of a South facing its challenges. It’s metaphoric on many levels, divine on so many more.