Twenty years ago, Robbie Fulks became a beloved alt.-country figure by writing modern honky tonk and country songs that rose above the work of many other contemporary traditionalists thanks to a combination of sharp wit and engaging storytelling. In 2013, Fulks gained critical acclaim for "Gone Away Backward," an album that took a deeper dive into history by embracing the traditional Appalachian folk music that proved to be country music's bedrock. That exploration continues with "Upland Stories."
The instrumentation is acoustic with the majority of the arrangements sparse, thus allowing the real focus - Fulks' narratives and emotive vocals - to take center stage.
The title is a reference to the area in Virginia and North Carolina where Fulks spent his childhood years, a geography at the core of Appalachia that is dominated both physically and culturally by the mountains. You can feel this influence in Fulks' songwriting here - human tales about life lived simply, but still containing emotional complexity.
There may be no finer example of Fulks' songwriting prowess than "Never Come Home." After living away from family, the narrator is returning home to die, and his observations on the situation are simple in expression, but fraught with emotional weight. "I had scarcely laid my bag down when my misjudgment hit me square. I was welcomed like a guilty prisoner, old grievances fouled the air. 400 miles mean nothing, one man's troubles are his own. The land is run down and ragged, I should have never come home."
Fulks' proclivity for penning keen observations is also highlighted on a three-song cycle inspired by the work of the noted American writer and journalist James Agee. Based upon Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," a book resulting from his collaboration with photographer Walker Evans documenting the lives of poor Great Depression-era sharecroppers in Alabama, "Alabama At Night," "America Is A Hard Religion" and "A Miracle" are all little tableaus from the perspective of both the sympathetic and objective journalists and the sharecroppers themselves.
Although the overall tone of "Upland Stories" is serious, Fulks' humor is still a key component. Whether sharing the family's first meeting with an elderly aunt's new husband on "Aunt Peg's New Old Man" or describing the thin line between love and hate on the deliciously wicked "Katy Kay," Fulks brings moments of levity throughout.
"Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals," is an amalgamation of all that is right on "Upland Stories" and an ideal closing statement for this superb album. The gorgeous folk melody perfectly complements this middle-aged contemplation of life's missed opportunities, and while the occasional fiddle swells hint at the possibility of a brighter future, they certainly don't carry the tune.