Thirty years and a dozen albums on since he shocked polite society with his album South Mouth, ace picker and bare-knuckled lyricist Robbie Fulks soldiers on in the music business as a man with few illusions about stardom, fame or wealth.
“Will Robbie Fulks ever be a star? No,” says the longtime Chicagoan as he prepares for a tour in support of his new Bloodshot Records album, Upland Stories, a sparse, somewhat severe old-time string-band collection of hardscrabble remembrances and love stories. Songs like “America Is a Hard Religion” and “Alabama at Night” probably won’t be blaring at a Trump rally anytime soon, delving into rigid American attitudes and biases as they do. This is hardly the stuff of popular, commercially lucrative music, and Fulks doesn’t seem to mind.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to push myself as far as writing,” Fulks says while lunching at his home in Chicago. “Some of the songs were inspired by some James Agee stuff I was reading, his stern view of what America really is. I went for some of that, but there are also love songs and all that entails.”
At the end of the day, Fulks makes his living the old-fashioned way, with multiple revenue streams from albums, song royalties, live shows and his day job teaching at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. His latest album, like most of his others, is licensed through Chicago insurgent-country label Bloodshot Records. It’s a departure from two previous albums that were more electrified and steered closer to honky tonk than to the old-school patina Fulks and engineer Steve Albini have stamped on Upland Stories. The album has an Appalachian feel with plenty of banjo and fiddle, but it’s not a bluegrass album. Some reviewers have called Fulks a neo-traditionalist.
In the James Agee vein, Fulks actually titled the first tune on his new release “"America Is a Hard Religion," but it’s not much of a stretch to think of Fulks also penning “Americana Is a Hard Religion,” a put-down of Americana, a pseudo-genre where he’s often pigeonholed and which was recently acknowledged by Billboard.
“Is that really a thing we’re still talking about in 2016?” Fulks wisecracks. “Honestly, concepts like Americana or insurgent country or alt-country never enter my head when I’m performing or trying to write. I knew this time I was going to make a quieter album, I knew I wanted to write something that means something to me and hopefully that will translate into something that touches other people. But the main thing at the end of the day is am I satisfied with what I’ve done, not what genre will they put my record in at the store.”
But Fulks, who could well have been a stand-up comic or a journalism teacher, does notice a trend among many new acts flying the Americana banner the highest and loudest.
“If you look back in country music, there is a tradition of great picking, great players," he says. "A fraction of what I’m exposed to as Americana these days has those kind of players. Another thing I notice is that there is a sort of universal stereotype making the songwriting almost image-mongering. Lots of writing in that genre focuses on lyrics that make the front person seem tough or sympathetic, and there’s too much bragging. And the lyrics are almost like a wardrobe or a disguise. I just don’t get much satisfaction from most of the songwriting, and I think that’s because there are so few really good stories in the lyrics. And then there’s the whole thing with the big bass drums and the stomping and the outfits, but it just doesn’t seem that genuine and organic.
“I appreciate a good country song and I still hear a mainstream country song now and then that grabs me," Fulks continues. "I listen to the Sirius outlaw-country station because a lot of my friends and colleagues are on there. But as far as my personal listening these days, I probably listen to more jazz than anything.”
Fulks notes that he didn't think he'd stay in Chicago when he first settled there, but he liked what he found.
"The country scene here was so tiny after being in Nashville," Fulks recalls. "There were only about 20 people in town that were really concentrating on country music. Everyone who could play knew everyone else; it was a very tight-knit little bitty scene. But here I am 30 years later, so this is home."
Fulks, who tried his luck at being a Music Row Nashville songwriter in the early nineties before saying fuck this town and relocating to Chicago, was raised in Virginia and North Carolina, went to college at Columbia in New York, and spent his first years in the business touring with bluegrass band Special Consensus. While he’s lived the bulk of his life in Chicago, Fulks’s Southern sensibilities have been given free rein on Upland Stories.
“I’ve lived in Chicago so long now I guess I’ve taken on some of the attributes you’d identify as Midwestern,” Fulks theorizes. “But the South I grew up in assumes this gauzy space in my mind. I’m like that line in that great Jesse Winchester song where he says he wants to live with his feet in the South and his head in the North. Part of that may be middle age or rose-colored glasses, that stuff. But in my mind, I’ve always been attracted more to Southern culture and Southern music and literature. It’s just richer and more interesting to me, and always has been.”
Fulks will be playing as a trio tonight and will primarily be presenting material from the new album. Don’t be surprised if this turns rowdy.
Robbie Fulks performs between Nicole Starch & Torpedoed Heart and The Glass tonight at Fitzgerald’s, 2706 White Oak. Show starts at 8:15 p.m.
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