Gone Away Backward: Best Album of 2013

Ranked #4,503 in Music, #132,665 overall

The cover of Robbie Fulks’ album Gone Away Backward features a black-and-white photograph of a tornado (he recently said he isn’t sure but he thinks the photo is of the one that hit Greenville, Kansas). It is a perfect symbol of the raging souls of the protagonists in many of the songs inside. Long respected in alt-country and Americana circles as one of the best singer/songwriters in the business, Fulks’ album, simply stated, was the best thing released in 2013.

Fulks’ songs have frequently featured characters that he describes as “flawed” (the teenager in “Coldwater, Tennessee,” William Hayes in “Cold Statesville Ground,” the wife-beating alcoholic of “Barely Human”), and this album is no different. The protagonist of “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” is an alcoholic content to stand on a Las Vegas street corner and beg money so he can buy his libations. If someone offers him a spiritual gift instead of cash he scorns them with, “I never burdened God on your account, don’t waste your prayers on me.” The bitter, tormented narrative is brilliantly augmented by haunting fiddle solos from Jenny Scheinman (who has her own career as well as a history of performing with acts as diverse as Bono, Lucinda Williams, and Bruce Cockburn). In contrast, the protagonist of “Where I Fell” has pretty much the same attitude but is more sympathetic because, as he says, “the choice was never mine” as he finds himself stuck with a dead-end job (“I sling hash for what-all spills off the interstate”) in a small, dead-end town with a polluted river that “smells like a 20-ton truck full of paint thinner sank down in it” and a bar with “the same sad crew…shouting over the redneck band.”

Equally flawed, but much funnier, is the narrator of the purely bluegrass song “Long I Ride.” The man in the song uses people and has an attitude similar to that depicted in Steve Earle’s “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” but at least he has laughs along the way: “They say the Norfolk girls are fine and they all sing right on key, but I went down and I never found one who sang as good as me.”

The centerpiece of the album is the masterful “That’s Where I’m From,” a hauntingly beautiful song about being in a hurry to leave home, only to later discover that southern roots run too deep to escape. The contrast between living in the big city, where he has “made it” (“white collar, a necktie, that’s where I’ve come”) and enabled his children to live comfortably and growing up in the country where he was free to run “half-naked in the moonshine” is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming.

“Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener” has a bit of an autobiographical feel to it. While superficially liked by the record label, the executives say they “have to shave a few rough edges down,” which included a haircut (“cut my hair like Brooks and Dunn’s”) and the abandonment of bluegrass for rock (along the lines of his great but very UN-country 1998 album Let’s Kill Saturday Night). He concludes, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, “I don’t know just what this deal has got me. I gained not a fan and I lost the ones I had.”

Two instrumentals, “Pacific Slope” and “Snake Chapman’s Tune,” give Fulks a chance to show off his gifted guitar playing. He almost always has at least one instrumental on an album, and these two continue that tradition in a grand style. Fulks had well-known performers such as former Del McCoury band member Mike Bub, Scheinman, and his longtime friend/accomplice Robbie Gjersoe on the album, and he put them to good use.

The album concludes with the lovely story song “Rose of the Summer,” about a man who returns from military service to find the love of his life has married another. He marries and raises a family, but at the end when he’s the sole elderly survivor in town the grave over which he cries is the marker for the lost love, not the wife.

If you’ve never experienced the joy that is the music of Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward is the perfect place to start.

"I'll Trade You Money for Wine" from a 2013 solo tour of Europe.

The stirring ballad "That's Where I'm From."

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