Robbie Fulks – Bluegrass Vacation: Album Review

Say yes to yee-haw as erstwhile honorary Mekon, Robbie Fulks, goes full on back porch.

Release Date: 7th April 2023

Record Label: Compass Records

Format: CD / digital

Undoubtedly one of the good guys, Fulks, from Chicago, has been plying his ragged roots American music for a fair while now, varying between plugged-in/full-on alt punk and back porch acoustica, casting a shadow not entirely dissimilar to John Hiatt. And, like Hiatt, entirely unafraid of bluegrass instrumentation, with this being where he lets that tendency take full rein. The fact that he has buddies like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien on hand here certainly adds no small lustre to the sheen, making this almost awesome territory, even before playing. Which then doesn’t dissipate.

The songs, all his own, vary between lightweight musings on the state of (musical) play and sombre reflections on life, his voice a dry and crumbly biscuit, with a lasting oatmealy tang, that fits the material just fine. From the tab opener of On Glass Of Whiskey, a rollick of a barroom bejasus, it starts as it means to go on. The banjo is mainly his, his pals grouping around the microphone for a good ol’ drinking song, with superlative guitar, fiddle and mandolin. In other words, normal service for the hard stuff of bluegrass. Second song is a more of a tear-jerker, a maudlin song that raises still a smile, salt in the sour mash. Fabulous fiddle from Shad Cobb, the banjo here Alison Brown, with more in another classic old tymey country sentiment being expressed in the next song, Lonely Ain’t Hardly Alive. Here is where the classic screech of appalachian harmonies first hits full paydirt. If it isn’t to all tastes, broaden your palate.

It is all much in this classic vein, with several songs on the cusp of crossover. Angels Carry Me could transcribe into almost any genre, and begs a steel-drenched iteration, but, stripped back as it is, could be a hybrid construction of James Taylor and Paul Simon. The age-old schism between redneck conservatism and those goldarn hippies stealing their music gets an airing for Longhair Bluegrass, even if an argument now slightly long in the tooth. No less enduring and endearing, tho’, and to be fair, it is a reminisce, referencing, amongst many more, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the real pioneers thereof. Backwater Blues doesn’t quite make up the lost ground, but is a good opportunity for Fulks to show off his guitar picking. Sweet Lil Cora-Mae signposts the debt of bluegrass to Celtic homelands, and, knowing nothing much beats a high-octane instrumental hoedown, Silverlake Reel is just blimmin’ gorgeous.

A title like Momma’s Eyes certainly lets you know what’s in store, without disappointment. Cheerful it’s not, actually a song about dementia. Fulks plays it straight and sure, eschewing sentimental and avoiding saccharine. It’s a beauty, whether or not you blame the dust for your own eyes. You need the slapdash of Nashville Blues, with it’s convincingly back porch echolalia vocals, to then lighten the room, its hokum perfect placement. Let The Old Dog In does, that hound bounding in, at a hell of a lick, for a race to the food bowl, agreeable and amiable nonsense with stellar playing, in the style of Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. Yelps, ‘arfs and backchat included! Closer, Old Time Music Is Here To Stay could sound like a further cornball, but, such so far your immersion, hey, it just sounds as it ought and should echo your current frame of mind. The lyrics propel the listener through Fulks’ initial mistrust of the genre, moving on to how his “electrified guitar” sits in the closet these days.

If you are a convert to bluegrass, this’ll scratch your itch for sure. If just browsing, drawn in by Fulks and his association with Jon Langford’s mercurial Mekons, give it a go. You may even find yourself hooked.

Here’s the opening shot!

Robbie Fulks online: website / facebook / twitter

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