When Country Songs Get Real: Robbie Fulks and the Bittersweet of Shared Nostalgia

I’m not a fan of country music. I tend to stereotype it as being about–well, stereotypes. Easy to dismiss that ol’ achey-breaky-pickup-trucky twang as having nothing to do with my life.  

But I’ll listen to anyone who is a) an excellent musician, and b) someone I went to high school with. Robbie Fulks is both. So when I saw that he was touring in Bellingham, a couple of hours away (including ferry ride), of course I went.

Robbie played with a fiddler friend, Shad Cobb, at the Green Frog, an appropriately grungy tavern, and did us middle-agers the favor of starting before 7:30 and ending at 9. Of course, he’s a middle-ager himself, having graduated three years behind me. His voice is as sweet as ever–think Willie Nelson mixed with John Denver–and his lyrics even sharper. Seems in middle age, Robbie has decided to take his lyrics back to Chapel Hill in the mid-late 70s. And there in the beery dark of the Green Frog, he took me too.

Robbie showed up my sophomore year when his dad took a job teaching history at Carolina Friends School. Picture this ridiculously adorable 13 year-old with long golden curls, crooked teeth and dimples. His dad took him along to the Upper School retreat at the start of the year, and on the last night Robbie played in our talent show. In a voice way, way beyond his years, he crooned that early 60s song, “Earth Angel.”  “Earth angel…earrrrrrrth angel….please be miiine…my darling dear, love me all the tiiiime…” And my girlfriends and I fell madly in love.

OK–in crush. I mean, the kid was 13. And as we all grew older, Robbie became less of a phenom and more of a friend. I can’t say he was a close one of mine because, by the time he entered high school, I was a lofty senior, taking classes and running track at nearby Duke University and spending barely two hours a day on my old campus. I went with my friends to hear Robbie when he played at local clubs, but I all but lost track of him when I left for college.

One tie kept me in touch. One of my three besties, two years behind me in school, was close friends with Robbie’s girlfriend, M. When she told me that Robbie had gotten M. pregnant I wasn’t surprised. What was surprising to me, back in the early 80s, was that they decided to get married, at age 19.

Fast-forward now about 35 years. I attended a CFS reunion in 2015, and spent time with the woman who first married Robbie and had his son. M. and Robbie split long ago, but saw each other amicably at their son’s wedding.

I mention all this now not to gossip, but just as a backdrop, so that you know what I was thinking about when Robbie sang his new song, “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals.” Not only is it apparently about the time when young love changed his life and M’s forever, it contains details so specific that only someone from central North Carolina would understand: “the Airport side of Franklin Street”–the coolest hangout in Chapel Hill. “Northgate Mall”–less cool (and darker, if you listen to the song). And dear Tommy Thompson, founder of the Red Clay Ramblers and dad of our friend Jessie.

This song is about my people. And that means it’s about me. I may not have been one of Robbie’s “Carolina Gals,” but I’m still one. This hits close to home.

I went up and hugged Robbie after the show, small-talked for about a minute (while other folks waited in line), and bought his album. I’ve been listening to it. And now I can’t stop wondering…how many of those cliched country songs out there are animated by similarly specific, poignant, bittersweet reality?

Think of any genre of music you’re not comfortable with. Maybe it’s country, like me. Maybe hip-hop, maybe opera. But maybe, as I’m learning to do, if we listened more closely, we could feel that sweet connection of shared pain or joy. What but good could come of that? 

Thanks, Robbie, from this middle-aged Carolina Gal.

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