It’s good — no, great — to hear Robbie Fulks indulging his deepest musical roots. Obviously a gifted singer, songwriter and performer, there was a period a few years back when he was caught between the siren song of the NashVegas major labels and bona fide grassroots country music performer. He thankfully has opted for the latter and, with 13 Hillbilly Giants, jumped into the river of American song. This is country music as practiced by the first Hank Williams, untainted by the dreck in which Bocephus and Hank III have mired themselves. Simple, elegant, unflinching, earthy songs about love, loss, God, family, death (and raising a drink to some of them too).
Now, the issue of the tribute record. Usually, tribute records rank somewhere between passably listenable and good-as-a-coaster, with the artists contributing mired not in a truly transformative love of the source material, but rather a lust for what it represents to them musically.
Fulks sidesteps that trap here, opting instead to honor the source by staying true to it and giving ample musical and liner-note credit where credit is due. Each of the cuts on 13 Hillbilly Giants is sourced by writer and performer. Jimmy Arnold, Dave Rich, Gordon Terry, Hylo Brown and other hardworking artists whom time and celebrity have forgotten are the stars here. Fulks’ cover of the Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton song, “Jeanie’s Afraid of the Dark,” penned by Parton, is as good a place to shine a light on this record as any other. A classic bittersweet, realistic and heartbreaking tale of a girl whose mother and father “knew wouldn’t see grown,” it is just the kind of song that earned country its “tear in your beer” reputation. On Jimmy Logsdon’s funny, oedipal “I Want to be Mama’d” Fulks works his voice into a tizzy over a romping beat.
These are only the two subject matter poles — between heartbreak and humor — and there are gems throughout this baker’s-dozen tracks. Throughout, Fulks and company show their musical chops with admirably equal restraint and virtuosity. And engineer (sorry, “recorder”) Steve Albini gives the proceedings a warm, homey, inviting tone (not that his versatility should surprise anyone at this point in his career, but …).
Fulks has done his forebears proud.
E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org.