On April 1, the pioneering singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks will release his excellent twelfth album, Upland Stories, on Bloodshot. It's a masterfully played, richly layered look back at America's bad old days (have those days ever ended?) punctuated by almost-just-as-devastating love songs.
Listen to the exclusive album stream, below, and read an interview about the record—and history and songwriting and hope—with the original Mr. Fuck Nashville himself.
Parts of this album were inspired by James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a great work of journalism about Alabama during the Great Depression. What role has research played in your career?
When I travel around I keep my eyes open. The ’08 recession either made things worse in little midwestern towns or it made me notice harder—probably both. When I run into people while traveling around, I’m much more into listening to them than talking to them, because of my nature, and it turns out their interests run the same way. A lot of times observations I pick up from strangers and friends will make it into my songs in a first-person voice. With the Agee songs, I actually stole a few phrases, like “scoured clay.” He was great at minting sharp little phrase-units like that.
What was in your mind when you were writing songs like “America Is a Hard Religion,” and bridging the country of Agee's 1930s and of today? Maybe it's just the election season affecting me, but is it a bit hopeless?
I suppose I was thinking of hammering home some dire American conditions in the way that Agee did it in the Famous book. Of course, his book had real people and specific historical experience in it, but it was a broad sociological tract as well, an enraged and outraged sermon to the comparatively comfortable book-buying public. As to hopelessness, I guess the fact that pockets of extreme, immiserating poverty still exist in the U.S. all these years later, after the postwar growth spurt and the War on Poverty, does engender despair, but a capacity for outrage and articulate expression, I would say, springs from a place of hopeful defiance.
I read a great review of your last album, Gone Away Backward, that called it “quite sensible and straightforward,” and I feel that’s the case here, too. This record has a different vibe, but musically and lyrically speaking, directness was a goal, right?
I don’t know, that sounds like Amish footwear. If you’re talking about the vocal delivery, that seems like a compliment, and I do tend to sing more directly and emotionally into the mike these days; but if someone thinks sensibleness is the main feature of my lyrics they might be missing something, or I’m doing something wrong. One of my goals in a lot of my songs is to keep looseness in the line-to-line and verse-to-verse design and a corresponding ambiguity in the pattern of meaning, so that the listening experience can be more rewarding. You could say that country lyrics are very daring at taking directness and simplicity to an artistic extreme, but it’s easy to think of many influential examples that muddy that generalization—Hank Williams’s stilted diction, Bob McDill’s gentle implications, John Loudermilk’s altered-state vividness, and so on.
What parts of this album were challenging for you? I’m curious how you invent obstacles, or still struggle to clamber over old ones, after a dozen records.
If I played with the same people all the time, I imagine it would be easier to get into a rut—knowing in advance what the instruments would be, and how the players would likely interpret the mood and the changes and respond to my direction. I don’t think that record-to-record I’ve ever used the same cast, and within a record it’s often mixed up a lot as well. So each new project contains surprise, as to how the blueprints are going to come to life (or not).
This record had a mix of people I’d played a bit with but never recorded with, like Todd Phillips and Wayne Horvitz, and people I’d worked with so much (principally Robbie Gjersoe and Jenny Scheinman) that I can often clue into what they’re doing a second before they do it, and probably vice-versa. Anyway, that in-the-moment playing never gets stale or very predictable. Coming up with fresh subjects and points of view and turns of phrase for a song is indeed more challenging after the first couple hundred, but I just write a lot and hope for the best.