Robbie Fulks Finds a Niche on 'Upland Stories'

Robbie Fulks Finds a Niche on 'Upland Stories'
Photo: Andy Goodwin
Robbie Fulks did something different on Upland Stories — he tried to make something similar to his last album. For a veteran songwriter whose career has spanned honky-tonk, Michael Jackson covers, and a recent drunken and ragged outing with the Mekons, doing the same thing was a new, novel approach.

Like 2013's Gone Away Backward, Upland Stories was recorded with longtime collaborator Steve Albini, though Fulks didn't entirely succeed at recreating Gone Away Backward's bluegrass vibe. It's more like a continuation and build on the themes and tone of that album, more expansive and atmospheric, with electric guitar, pedal steel and organ joining with the string band arrangements. Fulks also plays banjo on a record here for the first time.

"I wanted this one to sound like the previous [one] because I liked the way that the previous one came out," Fulks tells Exclaim!, while driving around his hometown of Wilmette, IL, just outside of Chicago. Yet he also had more pragmatic reasons.

"[Doing something different] hasn't been a boon to my career, let's put it that way," he says with typically dry humour. "Having an identity problem has probably held me back. So once I found something that I really liked doing, I thought, 'Well, I'll do it again, I'll make it easier for people.'"

In a genre like country, where experimenting album to album is relatively rare, Fulks' musical trajectory has been hard to pigeonhole.

"When people ask me what I do, I say country," says Fulks. "It's where I come from and how I grew up, but given that, I really do whatever I feel like doing, so a lot of it wanders far afield of whatever anyone thinks of as country."

A few of the songs on Upland Stories, which draws its title from upland Virginia and North Carolina, where Fulks grew up, were derived from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, based on a trip the two took in 1936 to document poverty in the South. The three that made the album — "Alabama at Night," "America Is a Hard Religion" and "A Miracle" — actually represent a larger work in progress earmarked for a musical that's currently on hold.

Themes of Southern identity, loss and melancholy drew Fulks to Agee, with whom he has some things in common — Agee grew up in Tennessee, Fulks in nearby Virginia and North Carolina; both went to elite colleges, then to New York — but when he actually read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men he says he was "pretty disappointed as to how forbidding and unfriendly and difficult to read [Agee] wilfully made it.

"When I dug up the original article for Fortune, before it metastasized into that book, it was kind of night and day," Fulks says. "I think the article is fantastic. It's maybe 100 pages long — way too long for Fortune Magazine to have used, so he kind of shot himself in the foot there. The actual book is almost an act of spite against the magazine and his frustration with trying to see that piece into print."

Fulks calls Agee's writing literary, if not elitist — sesquipedalian. "He's a member of an older generation, like William Styron and John Updike, people that were sometimes at pains to show their class and education by the shapeliness of their sentences and the breadth of their vocabulary," says Fulks. "That's a little hard to identify with for modern readers, but I find it charming I guess, and always have. I think it's better to be smart than stupid."

Some of the songs (and stories) on Upland Stories are closer to home. "Fare Thee Well Carolina Girls," for example, was inspired by a trip home to Chapel Hill for a 30th high school reunion, as Fulks considered and contrasted his experience with that of a classmate who'd never left. The song fuses the two men's perspectives.

"He just seemed really happy," Fulks says. "What I usually think of as the progression of my life as having left and gone somewhere and whatever I've achieved is somehow related to moving on — that sort of called that into question."

But the most moving, and arguably most deeply personal song on the record is a simple country ballad called "Needed," which encompasses themes of youthful recklessness, abortion, love and fatherhood and the passage of time.

"I wrote that one kind of quickly," Fulks says. "I thought I needed something more clearly personal to counterbalance these James Agee songs. I do remember crying when I wrote it, which is really egocentric, I think. But while I was singing it to myself and working on it I remember tearing up a little bit. Yeah, it's so powerful. I don't think any other kind of music deals with those simple, universal subjects, nearly as well as country music. That's probably the thing I love about country music better than anything."

Upland Stories is out now on Bloodshot.