Chi-town Country Rocker Robbie Fulks Returns to His Southern Roots
Intelligent, witty, and endlessly talented, Robbie Fulks’ smart brand of old-school country has been a favorite with the Americana crowd for decades. Songs like “Cigarette State” and “She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died),” showcase Fulks’ clever, often dark sense of humor and prodigious skills with a six-string, while the hook-heavy, hard-rocking “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” exemplifies this accomplished musician’s knack for ear pleasing genre hopping.
Fulks’ 2013 release, Gone Away Backward, was somewhat of a full-circle event, with the artist returning to the bluegrass-inflected sounds of his early musical years (Fulks’ spent time in the ’80s as a vocalist and guitarist with the Grammy-nominated bluegrass outfit Special Consensus.) That album also marked his return to the way-cool, Chicago-based label Bloodshot Records, home to several of his earlier releases.
With Upland Stories, Fulks’ continues his journey back towards his Southern roots. The album, out April 1, is named for the “upland areas” of Virginia and North Carolina where Fulks spent much of his youth. It features a lineup of outstanding players like long-time collaborators guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and violinist Jenny Scheinman, along with Shad Cobb (banjo, fiddle), Alex Hall (drums), Todd Phillips (bass), Fats Kaplin (mandolin, pedal steel), and Wayne Horvitz (keys).
The album takes its cues from the music of the South that infused Fulks’ childhood, as well as the region’s literary tradition. In particular, three of the tracks — “Alabama at Night,” “America is a Hard Religion,” and “A Miracle” — were inspired by author James Agee and photographer Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Published in 1941, the book documents the daily lives of sharecroppers in the South in 1936 and is recognized as one of the most influential books of the 20th century. It’s both a work of art and a social commentary. Fulks originally wrote the tunes for a play about Agee. When the play went on hold, “We had these songs, and of them, I liked the three that went on the record,” Fulks explains in a recent interview. “I thought they fit my voice well enough for me to be the singer. I guess they lend the album a little more gravitas than it might have otherwise had, or a little more literary pretentiousness. I don’t know. One or the other.”
While Fulks has spent most of his adult life in Chicago, he’s never far from the Southern sounds of his youth. “I think that music is just so much better,” he admits. “It just kind of seeped into me more strongly. I moved to Chicago as an adult, and if I were to pretend to be a blues person or a polka person or a punk person, it would be ridiculous. I couldn’t even pull it off.”
Like any kid growing up in the ’70s, Fulks tuned into mainstream radio. “I was listening to what everybody else was listening to in 1975,” he says. “I was listening to Earth Wind & Fire, Hues Corporation, and ABBA and everything else.”
That steady diet of Top 40, however, was served with a heaping side of Southern roots. “Along with all that,” he recalls, “was also Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, John Hartford, Delbert McClinton, and the Country Gentlemen.
“I sort of tried for a while to suppress that part of my personality because it was just so not in the swim,” Fulks continues. “But then, getting older, I came to really value that part of my musical personality a lot more because it just seems a little bit more unusual and, hopefully, more valuable.”
While Fulks has traveled far and wide on his creative path, it’s the themes and music of the South to which he eventually returns. “I’m sure people know what it’s like, or can imagine,” he says. “If you’re young in a place, and then you go away, you’re left thinking about it, and the memories take a weird turn in the brain as the brain gets older. It becomes more of a haunting than a memory. So I just keep poking at it like an old bruise or something.”
Never one to follow the industry rules, Fulks is truly an independent artist. “I think about myself as a country artist,” he says. “So when people ask, I say I’m a country singer. If I were to go on about it, I would say I’m a country singer that, if I feel like doing something else, then I do it. I’m free to do what I want to because I’m not popular.”
He laughs, then adds, “Sometimes, it’s a hardship not being popular. But I think artistically, it’s an advantage in the way that nobody says, ‘don’t do that.’”
With permission from Red Dirt Nation.