Best Albums of 2013 Closeup: Robbie Fulks - "Gone Away Backward" (Album Review)

Hang out in Americana circles long enough, and you'll start to hear people toss around phrases like "real country music". More than an ethnocentric down-the-nose judgmnet about fakery, the phrase tends to be employed when describing music that comes from a desire to tell stories about things that matter to real country people, not only those interested in purchasing something from a certain section of a store (or, a certain page on iTunes). Sure, plenty of real country people actually consume what Americana folks refer to as "Nashville country", but there is a difference between the music that's heavy on pickup trucks and beer cans, and what it is that folks like Robbie Fulks are doing.

When I interviewed Fulks back in September, he told me he's always tried to write music that was apolitical. This time around, he just felt inclined to comment on things he sees happening in the real country, in the lives of real country people.

The funny thing is, there's this idea in the mainstream of American thought that things that actually happen in real life - workaday things, like someone going to swim in the river only to find out it's polluted, or getting laid off from their job - are things people shouldn't sing about. There's this idea that music, and entertainment in general, is there for escape, not to encourage you to think more deeply about what's wrong. Yet, people lap up the opportunity to listen to music about devastating romance - another thing that happens in real life. Why songs about romantic struggles are deemed accessible and acceptable, while songs about struggling to make ends meet are considered political protest music, has always been a head-scratcher for me. (And that political protest, in a nation that was borne of such a thing, should be what we discourage from our artists...but that's a whole other can of worms.)

At any rate, this line between romance and party songs, and those that speak up about reality, tends to be that which separates the "real country music" from the stuff that's consumed in droves by people who listen to the radio a lot. Call Robbie Fulks and others who write like him political songwriters if you must, but the main difference between Fulks' songs and a political statement is that we could only wish politics was always this honest. 

Honesty is one of the strongest elements at the core of Gone Away Backward, trumped only by ruminations on place. From "Where I Fell" to "That's Where I'm From" and "Sometimes the Grass Is Really Greener," themes about where a person finds him/herself are thick here. There's nothing more country than thinking about place. Where you are and why you're there is one of the first things that comes to mind when you drive out beyond all markers of civilization, climb up into a truckbed, and just watch the stillness for a while. If you held a microphone up to the real country, you'd hear the landscape mourning for its polluted rivers, you'd hear people complaining about serving food at a greasy roadside diner, dreaming about life on the other side of all this. But it's not just the sad stuff you'd hear. There would also be harmony and hard work, the pluck of a distant banjo. There would be songs about childhood days and even some about a sad old broken heart. 

Fulks is one of the masterful storytellers in the realm of "real country music", and this album is jampacked with great stories.  In contrast to the sonic exploration inherent in last week's "Best of 2013 Closeup" pick - Aoife O'Donovan's Fossils - Robbie Fulks' release focuses hard on the plain and simple, making clear the metaphor that a dirty old country road can take you just as far as a well-paved six-laner.

But it's not just his exquisite command of what I'll go ahead and refer to as folk-country, that makes this album such a notable one. It's the rare hairs-standing-up-on-your-neck quality that Fulks manages to sustain throughout his dozen or so story-songs. Sure, this is an album about regular life and normal things. There's nothing like the slaying of imagined dragons happening here. But, the way Fulks dashes off a line about the complexity inherent in giving your kids a better life - the way it tears you from where you began, even as it lifts you above all the dust that could have settled on your life if you'd stayed behind...well, that's where the artistry comes in. But he doesn't deliver that sentiment with a verbal gesticulation. He just lays it down with a couple lines of near-rhyme and clunky rhythm, that works, somehow.

Night school on a fast track 
And no cause to look back 
That place put a scar on my soul 
I swore my young ones 
Would never know hunger 
The good life is all they can know 

Carrying off that kind of thing, and making it count, is what I think they call "real country." And that's what makes Gone Away Backward easily one of the best albums this year.

As the year draws to a close, I'll be writing close-up profiles of my picks for the Top 10 Best Albums of 2013. These will not be presented in the order they fall in my list. They are simply intended to underscore exactly why I believe these albums were the finest of the year. My final tally of the Best Albums of 2013 will be posted the last week of the year.

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Comment by Ramcey on December 3, 2013 at 5:13am

Great album and definitely one of the years best!

Comment by John Jackson on December 3, 2013 at 8:01am

Gets my vote to be among the best of the year.

Comment by Jim Hunter on December 4, 2013 at 8:03am

Definitely in the conversation...great artist, great record...

Comment by Kevin Russell on December 4, 2013 at 10:39am

Robbie Fulks, one of the most under-appreciated country music artists of our time, is, without a doubt, the love child of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. Seriously, there is not a better writer of heartfelt songs themed around home, relationships and -yes- God, than this former cow-punk, angry-young-man. Like Williams, he converts his very personal take on things into masterful expressions that convey the emotional depth and complexity of the human heart. Like Monroe, he borrows from, and extends, the high lonesome sound of the southern mountains with a muscular intensity that’s one part bluegrass, one part hard country and a dash of John Hurt-inspired folky-ness.

Triple threat that he is, Fulks easily delivers soaring, emotionally convincing vocals, stellar guitar chops (accompanied by a small band drawn from top shelf bluegrass players), and -as already noted- some of the best writing you will find in contemporary folk, bluegrass, country or that catch-all term, Americana.

Save one, he has forgone the aggressive electric bent of his youth for a nearly all-acoustic sound that showcases the subtlety and brilliance of his melodies, lyrics and gorgeous guitar work.
And with a band of side players, who have done their homework, the songs move easily from material that recalls the darkness of, say, Pretty Polly, to the directness and emotional conviction of the Stanley Brothers’ early work. I’d even say he’s a bit of an alchemist in that he manages to transform all these influences into something both inviting familiar and startlingly new.

This new CD is a high-water mark in a career that has delivered one excellent record after another. I predict this will be a classic.

-Kevin Russell, freighttrainboogie.com

Comment by Kim Ruehl on December 4, 2013 at 10:44am

Amen, Kevin.

Comment by Jim Hunter on December 4, 2013 at 11:06am

All that and more Kevin...and may I say he's damned funny too, though not as much this time out...Southmouth, Country Love Songs...a greatest hits album of all new material...tongue is firmly in cheek, when it isn't pulling at your heartstrings, or illuminating the ghosts upon the american landscape...

Comment by Jack Kidd on December 5, 2013 at 9:57am

It easily got into my Top 10 and fully agree with all above

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.