The Americana Outcast Robbie Fulkshas been delivering spellbinding albums since the late '90s, but has never returned to bluegrass in that time. Select songs within both "Upland Stories" and especially "Gone Away Backward" flirted with 'grass, but it hasn't been since his sole album with The Special Consensus (1989's "A Hole in My Heart") that Fulks has fully immersed himself in the beauty that is unabashed bluegrass.
Fulks' vocal style prevents "Bluegrass Vacation" from being considered any type of 'mainstream' bluegrass; as he always has done, roots iconoclast Fulks sings with a cadence, tone and voice entirely his own.
Thematically and instrumentally the album can be considered nothing but bluegrass; still, listeners expecting Junior Sisk, Del McCoury or Po' Ramblin' Boys stylings are likely to be somewhat confused.
Featuring 11 original songs and a fine interpretation of "Nashville Blues," "Bluegrass Vacation" is an entirely satisfying and invigorating slice of contemporary Grassicana. The album kicks-off with "One Glass Of Whiskey," another in the long line of colorful bluegrass drinking songs ("One glass of whiskey to ease my mind, and another one to take it too far away to find...")
The title is inspired by "Longhair Bluegrass," a song recounting Fulks' introduction to this wonderful music. With the family packing up the van for a weekend of camping and music, young Robbie was exposed to the rapidly evolving music that would provide his inspiration:
"There'd a-been police and pepper spray,
if a few old-timers had their way
Ol' Doctor Ralph Stanley looked a little unamused,"
he sings, before concluding,
"It was that long-haired bluegrass,
that was the sound of '73...
man, it swept the South and it swept over me."
Sam Bush and John Cowan join Fulks here, with Alison Brown's banjo leading the instrumental way. A great sound, a terrific song, but "John and Mary" it ain't.
Additional highlights include the personal-sounding "Momma's Eyes" and "Molly and the Old Man." Fulks hits the bluegrass nail squarely with "Lonely Ain't Hardly Alive" while "Backwater Blues" contains more than a bit of Monroe's blues-influenced approach.
The album concludes with the ode, "Old Time Music Is Here to Stay," and while the sentiment has been expressed many times, many ways, Fulks — over frailing banjo — does well to solidify his perspective:
"Watch the years unreeling,
the more I get the feeling,
old time music is here to stay."
Lyrically, Fulks is less ironic and cutting throughout "Bluegrass Vacation," playing it straight. The sincerity of "Molly and the Old Man" with references to "Cluck Old Hen" and legacy, further evidenced within "Sweet Li'l Cora-Mae" and "Let the Old Dog In" — a pure-fire bluegrass romper — reveal not so much a maturing of approach, but the appreciation for simple things that comes with experience. Fulks' guitar playing is great to hear. Ronnie McCoury, Sierra Hull, Wes Corbett, Tim O'Brien and Jerry Douglas join Fulks, Brown, and Bush on the recording.
Not for all, "Bluegrass Vacation" is an impressive album.