Roots Watch: Like Reba McEntire and Robbie Fulks
You may have figured you’d never see those two names together in any headline of any sort ever. Well, today’s the day. It’s not just timing that connects them—though a retrospective exhibit on Ms. McEntire’s entire career self-presentation, Reba: All the Women I Am, has just opened at the Country Hall here, and Mr. Fulks has an excellent new release on the way (August 27th, Bloodshot Records) that I’ve been playing a lot—Gone Away Backward. These, two longstanding, accomplished artists share more than a few worthy and noteworthy traits.
Fulks has been recording for nearly 25 years, since his debut as an accomplished bluegrass guitarist with Special Consensus at the end of the ‘80s. Later, he made his lasting impression as an alternative country performing songwriter with extraordinary gifts—original ideas for rooted songs and the ability to find the right, unexpected ways to express them, and at the pinpoint musical moment, with the musical tools to do it. It’s his more acerbic songs that have gotten the most attention, probably because he’s been guilty of bringing wit into places where supplies are short. Nashville bashers have celebrated his like-minded songs, but in truth the guy’s an equal opportunity wiseguy; he’s also delivered songs like “Countrier Than Thou” and “Roots Rock Weirdos” that bite the very hands that applaud the modern country-adverse epics. Those who value him for supposed adversity to country pop have to reconcile that with the fact that he’s written and recorded songs saluting the pop of The Bangles and even ABBA, writes with hooks, sings pop with readily apparent pleasure—and that Shel Silverstein and Roger Miller, with intellects and hearts intact, wrote pop, too.
Fulks has also been as consistently good as anyone around in alt.country, Americana and hard country songwriting at writing sometimes subtle but emotionally unambiguous examples of those forms. His hooky, menacing, joyous anthem “Lets Kill Saturday Night” especially when performed with uninhibited, wicked rock backing, should have been ‘90s alt. pop’s crossover theme song, but shifts in business winds got in the way. Here’s a recent, quieter version:
He’s also the highly informed country songmaker who came up with such straightforward twang songs as “The Buck Stops Here,” “Parallel Bars” and the whole solid set of no-fooling, surprisingly modern country on his 2005 album Georgia Hard. Maybe he’s burned some bridges to the mainstream, but smart working country artists would be wise to look into that material. His new Gone Away Backward proves to be another satisfying Fulks change-up among many—a very direct, moving set of acoustic songs that most often summon rhythmic, acoustic guitar and fiddle focused pre-bluegrass acoustic country sounds, and even ancient British Isle ballads, none of them snarky, and all as likely to appeal to fans of, say, Buddy Miller or Sandy Denny as grassers, Old Time country specialists and established Fulks fans. “Where time passes slower…that’s where I’m from, where it’s ‘Yes ma’am’ and No Sir”;’ if you can’t tell I’m country, just you look closer,” he sings in one evocative, specific country heart stopper, in case you never noticed.
This is a writer and performer who knows what he wants to do and what he doesn’t and acts accordingly. Most appealing, though, is that he’s kept on finding more things he’d like to take a stab at—one of those and one of those over there, and “here’s one of these, everybody.” The moods, sounds, genres and personas portrayed have varied, but the infectious excitement in doing all that has never faltered.
That has much in common with “all the women” Reba’s been and what she and the curators at the Country Hall are now telling us about at the new exhibit. She was, of course, an actual rodeo-involved Oklahoma cowgirl who started out sounding like one, and still does— talking, which we get to hear her do reasonably often. There are those—many of them modern country female artists—who prize her precisely for moving from what was pretty hardcore twang in the ’70s and ’80s to more modern country pop with a glamorous, contemporary look to go with it, who felt liberated by the space she unquestionably opened up in the process—workable enough that when, Strait aside, nearly no other hitmakers of the ‘80s can find routes onto the tiny playlists of country radio, Reba finds ways.
Others, of course, don’t like it and don’t get why she turned in a more pop direction over time (hint: because, as Lyle Lovett put it, “she really wants to”) or why she’d do something like Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy.” (You could ask Fulks, who did an extended Michael Jackson salute.) It comes from the same exploratory fearlessness that had Reba find a hit in the “woman with AIDS” song “She Thinks His Name Was John,” and the ability, shared with Fulks, to inhabit stories that are not necessarily her own. Another example, in the face of timid major label image-making doubts, was when she took up Bobbie Gentry’s hooker song “Fancy,” and made that a signature hit, as seen in this later version:
Maybe it was inevitable, with her broad interests, that Reba would wind up on Broadway—successfully—singing Irving Berlin’s “My mother was frightened by a shotgun they say; that’s why I’m such a wonderful shot;” she virtually is a modern Annie Oakley, all cowgirl and all show biz, too——with pop music gloss that’s never lost the connection to down home straightforwardness, virtually the only country heroine since Dolly Parton to pull off that “go anywhere, stay me” trick. She contains and can represent multitudes, and the Hall exhibit reminds us that she could always find exactly the right memorable dress for each of those women contained while she was at it. She’s nearly as brashly witty in her own way as Fulks, the comic timing taking her to those TV comedy successes, too. If she chose to record a hardcore honky tonk or Western Swing album tomorrow, it would be as instantly accepted a shift as Dolly’s turn back to Appalachian acoustics. Reba’s connection to the country audience seems unbreakable; her relish for them and for all that she does, unmistakable.
So, right; I know. Robbie Fulks has not been named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year multiple times nor been inducted into the Country Hall of Fame, nor starred in sit-coms or hosted award shows with Blake Shelton. (He’s not a redhead, either.) And Reba has not been heard on Americana playlists or written a career-load of pointed songs and blog posts, or continuously sung in dive bars weekdays with twelve people in the room as well as in the more favorable situations, or, for that matter, shown up as a hipster country reference. (She might have a chance, if only she’d agree to be washed up for a while so she could be “rediscovered” as “underappreciated.”) But in good and important ways, these two do remind me of each other: they always find something else again; they’re always glad to be there for us, performing. It’s what long-lasting artists are like. And I like Reba McEntire and Robbie Fulks.
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