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Robbie Fulks: Bluegrass Vacation
(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/3/2023)
Bluegrass is one of those music forms that crosses generational lines – going back decades. There are the old-time masters, and the hot young pickers emerging all the time. And there are some normally electric artists for whom bluegrass remains an inspiration, people who like to bring in bluegrass influence from time to time.
This week we have a long-time alternative country-rock artist who has essentially gone back to his bluegrass roots on his new release. It’s Robbie Fulks and his album is called Bluegrass Vacation.
A native of York, PA, Robbie Fulks has had a lengthy recording career, releasing his debut album in 1996. Bluegrass Vacation is his 16th solo release and he has appeared on at least as many albums as a sideman. He has been known for his mix of alternative country with occasional satire, sometimes doing send-ups of some of the tropes of commercial country. He has also worked as a songwriter for Nashville music publishers.
Music came early to Fulks – his family had a band with everyone playing a different instrument. At age 6, he picked up his aunt’s banjo, and took up the guitar in earnest at age 11. His parents, apparently hippie types, took him to bluegrass festivals as a child, and he was deeply impressed. One of his first regular musical jobs was with the bluegrass band Special Consensus playing guitar, starting in 1987. While his career went off in a more electric direction, that period remained strong with him, and in the liner notes to Bluegrass Vacation, Fulks writes about that, recalling how he was influenced early on by different generation of bluegrass musicians, the traditionalists and people like Sam Bush, and Tony Trischka who were defining New Acoustic music, as Fulks was coming up.
So the new album is a tribute to that period, with a new collection of songs, all but one original, recorded in Nashville with a kind of all-star Who’s Who in bluegrass and New Acoustic, such as New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush, Dobro master Jerry Douglas, vocalist John Cowan, songwriter and mandolinist Tim O’Brien, bassist Todd Phillips, from David Grisman’s group, plus some relatively younger players like mandolinist Sierra Hull, banjo player Alison Brown and guitarist Chris Eldridge. The personnel varies from one track to the next, but the sound and style is consistent, and a respectful tribute to bluegrass. The playing is impeccable, and Fulks is moved to be more serious in his lyric writing, with an autobiographical song, some songs in celebration of the music, and a couple of sad songs as well – it wouldn’t be bluegrass without a tear-jerker or two.
Opening is a track that is a kind of country drinking song, One Glass of Whiskey served up in classic bluegrass style. <<>>
Molly and the Old Man is another traditional-style bluegrass song, with bittersweet lyrics about the music and the solace it provides. <<>>
Also in a timeless country-bluegrass style is Lonely Ain’t Hardly Alive which Fulks and band handle with aplomb. <<>>
A song called Longhair Bluegrass is a nice autobiographical story of Fulks’ early introduction to the music, and what was then the different generations of bluegrass pickers, including the ones with long hair. <<>>
Backwater Blues is well-named, as an acoustic blues reminiscent of Doc Watson. <<>>
There’s a first-rate instrumental called Silverlake Reel. It features among others Jerry Douglas on Dobro. <<>>
The most poignant song on the album is Momma’s Eyes the story of the matriarch of the family falling victim to senility. <<>>
The album ends with a solo banjo performance in celebration of the music called Old Time Music Is Here to Say. It’s another reminder of Fulks’ appeal as a songwriter and artist, and his respectful appreciation of the genre. <<>>
Bluegrass Vacation the new 16th solo album by 60-year-old multifaceted artist Robbie Folks is a deftly-executed tribute to the music that has influenced him since his youth. Fulks is sometimes known for his satirical songs, but this new album is thorough respectful of the style. It also helps that he is joined by some of the great current luminaries in bluegrass on this Nashville-made recording. The songs span a range from hot picking to ballads to a waltz to a couple of sad songs, all done without playing on the cliches of the genre.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with the acoustic instruments well treated and an overall warm sound.
Robbie Fulks’ music has often called hard to categorize, since he has a tendency to try different stylistic directions on different albums. His new release highlights one of his musical facets, and his affinity to it is quite apparent from the start. The result is one of the best albums of Fulks’ varied musical career.
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