Racking Up Plays: “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” by Robbie Fulks

Robbie Fulks
The camera angle helps, but having shook the man’s hand after a show, Robbie Fulks really is incredibly tall even to a 6’2″ guy like me (via Bloodshot Records).

These are the posts where I gush about some song that I’ve got a huge crush on at the moment, and you put up with it and listen because you’re a good friend.

“I’ll Trade You Money for Wine,” Robbie Fulks

There’s songwriting, and then there’s masterful songwriting. Chicago-based singer Robbie Fulks has done everything from major-label roots rock to slick countrypolitan to traditionalist honky-tonk, but through it all, his songwriting never fails to do anything less than impress. The man can tell a complete story with compelling characters, wit, wonderful turns of phrase, meter, melody and rhyme in less than four minutes. On his 12th album, Gone Away Backward, there’s very little to distract from Fulks’ mastery of songcraft–just his twangy tenor voice and a small gaggle of acoustic instruments. The opening, for example, features nothing more than some Carter Family picking and scratchy fiddle that can’t help but recall the last time Fulks led off an album with a stark, Appalachian-folk morality tale, “In Bristol Town One Bright Day” off 2003’s Couples in Trouble. “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” traffics in the same sort of ominous lyrical imagery, but this time it’s being delivered by the town drunk rather than a prophetic narrator, and morality gets turned on its head.

Fulks sings in character as  former high roller in Elko County in northeastern Nevada who used to tool around town in a long, black Lincoln “back when copper was king.” Somewhere along the line, however, the man decided that, given the fate that awaits us all, hoarding riches wasn’t worth the trouble and his life would be better if he drank his troubles away. Now he pitties the banker who drops a quarter as he passes. Fulks describes him as one of those “streetcorner seers and prophesiers and lesser loudmouths.” In a way, the wino comes off sounding like the Teacher in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, who determines that worldly pursuits are as useless as chasing the wind, only this guy puts his faith not in God but in booze. In the chorus, he muses:

Pockets of change don’t drive my worry down
Diamonds don’t make me shine
It’s a short life and a long time underground
I’ll trade you money for wine

I could keep recapping the way Fulks swirls character and metaphor around each other, but, really, you’re better off listening to the song, then listening to it again 15 times until you start to wonder whether the prophet of Elko County is really onto something. Who’s really crazier: the bum or the man who scrimps ’til his hair turns grey?

“I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” isn’t one of them, but you can download two tracks from Gone Away Backward at Bloodshot Records.

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