If country music has a function beyond entertainment, in part it's to represent the Southern American experience. But too often New Country songs paint an airbrushed portrait. The "boys round here" are having so much fun in Dixieland, it's indistinguishable from a beer commercial - everybody's beautiful, has plenty of cash to keep the party going, and nobody's in any danger.
But many regions of Appalachia know a different truth. It's a place that knows about struggle. Consider the odd dichotomy of dry counties (and a church on every corner) as the setting for a large number of prescription pill addicts. It's a place Brandon Fulson knows well, as both his actual home (Cumberland Gap, Tenn. ) and songwriting canvas. Yes, visiting the "Dark Side of the Mountain" sounds like a potentially depressing affair. But there's no judgment, and many moments of hilarity and nobility, with Fulson's cast of characters. They reside in "Little Las Vegas," as the first song title goes - where successes aren't big time, but the sinning sure is. The singalong "Three Dollar Wine," about a fleecing prostitute, and "Zombie Town" are winning highlights.
But, on balance, the very best track is "Devil Buys the Groceries." In an instantly likeable melody, it talks about the sacrifices small and large people make to scrape by. Also don't miss the funniest of the more comical first half of the record, "Eating in the Yard," concerning a family's introduction to indoor plumbing. Often pairing with a writing partner, Fulson aims for a direct path to storytelling - there are few descriptions of the way the room smelled, etc. But the listener sure will know what motivates every sinner that comes along in these songs.
Fulson shows on the second half he's got more on his mind - how Vietnam and religion fit into the hearts of his neighbors are deftly handled, sermon-free. Fulson's vocal range isn't spanning up and down the scales, but he does have a good, low Outlaws' tone. There are also some sharp, '90s-flavored alt-guitar licks hidden underneath the folk progressions, a winning combination. The drum machine style percussion could stand to let in more air on its tight timekeeping. It would better fit the less-structured folks that Fulson sings about. But that's one of the tiny quibbles with one of the best independent releases in a very long time. It's high time that country update its romanticized cartoon of the South more into a fuller, panoramic picture - and in Brandon Fulson, we may have found just the guy to work the camera.