If you’re of the mind that Robbie Fulks cannot make a bad record, you know that you will gladly consume anything he creates. And with his latest creation, the stunning Upland Stories, Fulks has only solidified his place as one of the true prolific songwriters of the South. The sepia-toned portrait that graces the cover sets the tone of his 12 miniature narratives that have the beautiful mustiness of something rich with history. The family tree roots run deep on Upland Stories, and Fulks explores each and every one of them with his earnest sweetness and understated arrangements.
“We came up the hill to meet him/In the dirt patch he was weedin’/That was our first look at aunt Peg’s new old man,” Fulks sings amidst a mischievous fiddle and guitar melody on the opening of “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man”, setting the tone for some adventure and peaking our curiosity right away. He tells the story of his aunt finding new love after the passing of his 75-year old uncle Hank and bonding with the newcomer in his own way, playing banjo and sharing a hot meal. It’s a lovely tale about coming of age and being impressionable, and Fulks captures it with wide-eyed wonder the way a child might.
On “Sarah Jane”, he sings of nostalgia for an old love along with some of Upland Stories’ most beautiful guitar-playing. The way Fulks tells it, even if you’re penniless, love makes you rich and fills you with dreams. This song delves deep into the ways we find ourselves, especially through having a broken heart. “I went to bed in Galveston/Dreamed about Tennessee/Woke up thinkin’ the man I was/Is not who I was born to be,” he sings. Another song centered around a lady, “Katy Kay”, doesn’t get as dark, but instead erupts into a passionate bluegrass tune about a cutie-pie with a twist. “Hey now Katy Kay/Heaven never made one cuter/If I didn’t love Katy Kay/I’d probably have to shoot her,” he sings. Fulks excels at timeless folk songs like this one, and what makes it stand out is that he never takes himself too seriously. In fact, you can hear him stifling a laugh toward the end and it makes you smile right along with him.
That sense of humor stays on throughout the record and particularly shows itself on the album’s final song and true standout “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals”. It sure sounds pretty when it starts, but Fulks writes about the humiliation of youth, again hitting poignantly on coming of age. This song also boasts Upland Stories’ most dazzling instrumentals, with fiddle playing that’ll bring you to tears. He sings, “So with my hair in my eyes and my chest out swelled/I stood on her porch and I buzzed the bell/Peekin’ round the blind and knowin’ full well/That her folks was gone to Boston,” bringing us right there with him, nervous as ever for what’s next.
Robbie Fulks plays Union Hall in Brooklyn on May 14th. Stay tuned for our review! Check out his full tour schedule!
Photo by Andy Goodwin/Bloodshot Records