Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
obbie Fulks decided to go in a different direction for "Upland Stories," his latest effort for the esteemed Chicago label, Bloodshot. Fulks, who spent time in his youth in Virginia and North Carolina, went back to his roots for stories focusing on the South.
He adopted a softer tone for the most part, continuing in the same vein as 2013's "Gone Away Backward," but Fulks did not go soft in concert. No surprise there. He's a personality, for sure, an engaging one at that with music to match.
Yet again, Fulks proved himself to be a performer with substance. He was at his most erudite in "Alabama At Night" based on James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" about Southern sharecroppers and their dismal lives.
While Fulks knew a thing or being serious, he infused the songs with his brand of sharp, sardonic humor, presumably not taking himself too seriously. It worked because the crowd responded with laughter a number of times. Near the end of the show, he went improvisational, making up a funny song involving the local terrain here, before closing out the regular set with "Cigarette State" in effect, a knock at North Carolina and the tobacco industry.
Fulks went more personal on the new "Aunt Peg's New Old Man," where he recounted a visit to his aunt in Virginia, who was a recording artist (although Fulks said he never liked her material and still didn't when he heard it in recent years), and her new husband.
Fulks was backed by a crack quintet including long-time mainstay Shadd Cobb on fiddle, Pete Finney on pedal steel, Gerald Dowd on drums and Todd Phillips on upright bass. Fulks gave them numerous chances to take the spotlight, deservedly so.
With a long recording history, Fulks left out a bunch of chestnuts like "Tears Only Go One Way" and "Rock Bottom, Pop. 1." Yes, it would have been nice to hear those, of course, but Fulks also has new songs he obviously believes in, such as the "Upland Stories" material. There's no need to rest on the tried and true. Why not push yourself and audience (and there was a near full house in the 105-seat intimate club)?
Fulks has never quite gotten his due despite putting out a slew of excellent albums. For most country fans, he is not even on their radar screen. Not going for the commercial jugular can do that to you. Too bad for the country crowd because Fulks remains the complete package thanks to penning high quality songs and being an extremely funny raconteur and real good singer. Maybe the public needs a change in direction, not Fulks. He's doing exactly as he should.