Album Review: Robbie Fulks – ‘Bluegrass Vacation’

Given that this is my first time properly writing about Robbie Fulks on this website, I’m at a loss for where to really begin. He’s primarily known for his ‘90s work which stood at the forefront of the burgeoning alt-country movement, but he’s more of an old soul who’s explored everything from carefully crafted folk studies (with 2013’s Gone Away Backward and 2016’s Upland Stories, among others) to rockabilly, pop, and even overlooked country music ancestors (with 2001’s 13 Hillbilly Giants) through tightly concentrated concept albums. Oh, and outside of that, he’s got a dark sense of humor that rivals Roger Miller in how much of a shit-stirrer he can be on record and off; calling it a devil-may-care attitude feels like it’s underselling it entirely.

Basically, then, he’s back after an extended period of time with a bluegrass project, and it’s about as in-character for him as one would expect. And yet, I don’t know if it’s the bluegrass touch adding a healthier dose of instrumental and compositional variety into the mix or if his greater storytelling focus is strengthened by the overall gentler touch here, but this may be Fulks’ most accessible project to date, and possibly one of his best. And in a slower year for top-tier projects, this may be the first one to really sink its teeth in for me in a way I hadn’t anticipated – where a return feels more like a rejuvenation.

Granted, given how tight-knit the overall bluegrass community is, it’s no surprise to hear the heavy-hitters enlisted for this project, nor is it surprising to hear certain signature trademarks of their playing. The production is richly warm and pure across the board in general, for instance, but I picked up on Sierra Hull’s liquid mandolin playing on “Angels Carry Me” right away, a striking highlight in how it shifts between its muted darkness into a hopeful, uplifting crescendo by its end. And between further contributions from Allison Brown, Sam Bush, and Jerry Douglas, among others, there are plenty of moments that cut loose with a fair amount of charm and rollick: “One Glass of Whiskey” and “Let The Old Dog In” are the standard, impressively fast-picked standards one would expect for this sort of project.

Of course, that also feeds into a potentially easy criticism for this sort of project, in that it can be hard to find the unique core of the album beyond a warm, rollicking sound drenched in tradition, polished to a point that might even be viewed as puritanical. And that’s where Fulks comes in, as while his output has slowed somewhat over the past decade (in part due to Bloodshot Records falling out and the pandemic, to be fair), a lot of his more acoustic-based work within that time had somewhat led to this point naturally. And in further eschewing some of the brasher, youthful antics that comprised his earlier work, this still feels mischievous in its own right … just more lighthearted. In a weird sense, a pivot here is a return to his roots, where the duality of the album comes forth in its reverence for both the more plainspoken, traditional bluegrass, and its more contemporary vision. Hell, it’s why him running back through the ‘70s bluegrass scene from his own perspective and experience on “Longhair Bluegrass” is the autobiographical thesis statement of a record that, outside of the “Nashville Blues” cover, is wholly original in its love and passion.

But it’s less of a duality and more of a paradoxical tension at other points, a weird acknowledgment that while he’s found solace in retreating to the past, bluegrass can be more than just what its roots would suggest, and it’s the evolution that spoke to him in the first place. It’s why I love the messy, complex “Angels Carry Me,” a slice-of-life-framed track that still feels scattershot in nailing its central themes of youthful rock-star worship (in mentality, at least) and father-son tension over wanting to pursue an unsteady profession. After all, it’s a sort of inspirational magic that will either grab a person or won’t, which makes the special personal connections of “Molly and the Old Man” in sharing a love for music all the more resonant, as is the somewhat downbeat closer, “Old Time Music Is Here To Stay,” where the titular sentiment is certainly true but to a certain special, idiosyncratic degree.

Elsewhere, it’s a Fulks record. Even the drinking song in “One Glass of Whiskey” is careful enough to label our character as socially awkward in a fun way – made all the more obvious by the drunken screw-up shenanigans on “Let the Old Dog In” – and “Sweet Li’l Cora Mae” reads like a tale of regret over lost love until there’s a certain twist that suggests he might have got what he deserved. But if the ramshackle, free-wheeling side of him gets to shine, so does the empathetic songwriter who can pen devastating tales; there’s room for that in bluegrass.

It’s why “Momma’s Eyes” has continued to gut me with every listen, a carefully detailed, uncomfortably stretched portrait of dementia and how it doesn’t just wreck the victim, but everyone around them. It’s all the more crushing if you’ve known someone in that position (I have), but it’s the little details that take it further: how the symptoms show slowly over time until you have to face reality; how despite everything there are those few fleeting moments where they’re themselves again that can be paradoxically joyful and cruel; and the toll it takes to care for someone in that position, even despite one’s best intentions. A gutting song, and one of my favorites of the year. That’s not to say it’s a perfect album. “Lonely Ain’t Hardly Alive” shows that Fulks can nail the high tenor required for the vocal role, but it’s a bit conventional otherwise. And “Backwater Blues” is lighthearted but also plods along in a way that the rest of the album really doesn’t.

But, that’s about it. This is an album I’ve kept coming back to, not necessarily because it reveals a new layer of insight with every revisit (though, it does), but because it’s just so easy to revisit and enjoy, a late-career highlight that continues to deliver. And like the best vacations, I don’t want it to end.

  • Favorite tracks: “One Glass of Whiskey,” “Molly and the Old Man,” “Angels Carry Me,” “Longhair Bluegrass,” “Sweet Li’l Cora Mae,” “Momma’s Eyes,” “Let the Old Dog In’
  • Least favorite track: “Backwater Blues”

Buy or stream the album.

3 thoughts on “Album Review: Robbie Fulks – ‘Bluegrass Vacation’

  1. I’ve long thought that, since I love country music, that I should also really enjoy bluegrass music. I do enjoy it to a certain extent, but I’ve recently come to the realization that I just can’t get into it nearly as much as country music.

    However, there are some bluegrass albums that I really love (The Mountain might be my favourite Steve Earle album and I love Dolly Parton’s string of bluegrass albums (particularly The Grass Is Blue)) and I tend to enjoy it when country artists, usually later in their careers, put out bluegrass albums (Patty Loveless, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, Dierks Bentley, to name a few). I also tend to prefer bluegrass-adjacent artists (eg. Bella White, Caleb Klauder) to pure bluegrass artists.

    All that being said, I quite like this album – it works for me as Robbie Fulks is talented and versatile enough to pull it off. I particularly like One Glass Of Whiskey, Longhair Bluegrass and Old Time Music Is Here To Stay.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s