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.