My buddy Brandon Fulson returns to Blount County on Friday night, taking part in an acoustic in-the-round style performance at the venue that played a role in his forthcoming bluegrass album.
Like most musicians who grew up around these parts, Fulson always has had an appreciation for bluegrass music. Heck, he grew up in Middlesboro, Kentucky, a state that gave its nickname to the genre, and icons like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury were familiar fixtures on the radios around which he was raised.
As he got older, he drifted more toward honky-tonk and Southern rock, albeit with a penchant for penning lifelike characters and vivid descriptions of the burned-out small towns and foreboding hollers that are familiar territory. While playing Barley’s Maryville — the venue to which he returns on Friday — with a group of local musicians a few years ago, he discovered that despite the rock ‘n’ roll foundation, the songs he writes actually are pretty versatile.
“We all got on stage kind of like The Band playing ‘The Last Waltz,’ and we played my song ‘Mary Helen’s Gold’ bluegrass style,” he told me this week. “There were a bunch of us up there, including some of the Knox County Jug Stompers, and I realized, ‘Dang, these songs are flexible. Here’s a different avenue for them.’ A few years ago, I heard Dwight Yoakam’s album ‘Swimming Pools, Movie Stars,’ and he basically redid a lot of his old songs in a bluegrass style. I thought maybe I’d take some of mine and rework them like that, because I like that kind of challenge.
“So we went in (to the Arbor Studio), and I put down guitar, and (studio owner/local guitar ace) John Baker played bass, but then we gave them to (local multi-instrumentalist) Greg Horne. He added fiddle and mandolin, and they just came to life. At first, I thought we would just do a couple of songs, but we got hooked on the sound we were catching and decided to just lay down some more.”
“The Laughing Buddha” is one of two records Fulson hopes to complete by the time he turns 40 in May 2020. The second, “Ramblin’ Kind Revisited,” is a throwback to a collection of demos he put together when he was first getting started, having traded a coon dog (to his father) for his first guitar, teaching himself to play by listening to a Hank Williams record and becoming a convert to electric through Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band. He did the cover band circuit for several years, writing his own songs on the side, and after his straight-out-of-high-school marriage went south and a friend committed suicide, Fulson went off the deep end.
He wound up in Blount County’s Peninsula Hospital, got off the drugs and moved to Knoxville two months after getting out. In East Tennessee, he began carving out a niche as an original musician, introducing a slowly expanding fan base to the hard men and put-upon women who populate his songs — the backwoods moonshiners and tent-revival preachers and pill-slinging good ol’ boys who scrape by in parts of Southern Appalachia that can’t seem to catch an economic break.
In 2016, he released “Dark Side of the Mountain,” following it up last year with “Forgotten Appalachia.” The two records are meant as companion pieces, he said, with the former reflecting his Kentucky roots and the latter his time in East Tennessee, before he moved to Cumberland Gap, where he now resides and which straddles Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.
“The song ‘Cumberland Gap,’ to me that was kind of my centerpiece for ‘Forgotten Appalachia,’ and everything kind of evolved around it in my mind,” he said. “‘Dark Side’ fades out with ‘Middlesborough 1974’ and a car chase, and ‘Forgotten Appalachia’ opens with a song about Brushy Mountain. I like to think of them as Season 1 and Season 2 of a TV series.”
For “Ramblin’ Kind Revisited,” he’s revisiting the darker times of his own life, the forgotten nights and bleary mornings that landed him in rehab and the relationships that went off the rails along the way. They feel especially fresh these days, but perspective has given him the ability to sing about them in a way that’s as insightful as it is visceral.
One thing’s for certain: It’s not pop music, and there’s very little levity. He’ll leave that to “The Laughing Buddha,” he said with a chuckle.
“I was hanging out with a friend of mine, and she had this laughing Buddha statue, and one time I picked him up and started looking at him, and I just started laughing,” he said. “His hands were in the air, and he just looked elated. That became the centerpiece of this (bluegrass album), because I’m the guy in the middle, laughing and trying to make sense of it all and become content with it.”