Robbie Fulks is Bringing It All Back Home

In 2009, Robbie Fulks decided to make a change. For almost 20 years, the singer/songwriter had led a series of hard-hitting country-rock bands across America and beyond, his blistering guitar chops and madcap levity (the latter frequently testing, if not violating, standards of taste) winning him a modest-sized but ardent fan base.

"I was fatigued from what I'd been doing," Fulks told me recently via Zoom, sitting in his kitchen in Atwater Village, a Los Angeles neighborhood between Glendale and Burbank. "Me on acoustic guitar, with electric guitar, bass guitar and drums, that was my sound for something like 13 years. I was so tired of it, I was actually thinking of doing something other than music.

"The chapter change for me was 2009, when I figured out a style of performing I liked better." He stripped down to a duo, largely, at first, with jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman. "I was sitting down and playing acoustic guitar into a microphone, no pickup, and believe it or not, that alone just really rejuvenated me. A quieter style, airier guitar sound, fiddler over there, and not having all this noise around me. It's not even like there's been a trajectory. It was a sharp left turn."

Not long afterward, Fulks, who turns 60 in April 2023, made a second, equally redefining, move. In 2013, commenting on Fulks's music, The Wall Street Journal's Jim Fusilli wrote: "The level of artistry is so complete that it suggests a world in which Fulks isn't a household name is somehow upside down." Fulks's low profile was, in fact, largely of his own doing. He has so many musical passions—such an encyclopedic grasp of pop, folk, country, and their various subgenres—that his first 11 albums (he has released upward of 16), from Country Love Songs (1996) to 2010's Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson (you read that right), were stylistically all over the map.

Although he retains a degree of that magpie eclecticism—"if I could do whatever I felt like doing and didn't try to calculate what anybody else might think, one record would have nothing to do with the last," he said—Fulks has reined in his oceanic, manic, satiric tendencies to achieve something that once seemed beyond him: focus.

The album that Fusilli wrote about was Gone Away Backward, from which a distinct line runs through Fulks's next two solo albums, 2016's Grammy-nominated Upland Stories and the just-released Bluegrass Vacation. For 10 years, Fulks has been writing acoustic, folk-based songs as emotionally generous as they are musically spare. If yesterday's quintessential Fulks song was the gallows-humor country-rocker "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)," today's is "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals," an elegiac fiddle-and-guitar "memory song," as Fulks introduced it at a recent Manhattan show, about his early days in small-town North Carolina.

Photo by Will Byington

The Fulkses père et mère were both college professors until Fulks's father joined the faculty of a Quaker school in Durham, North Carolina. The family moved often, from Pennsylvania to Virginia to North Carolina. "When we stopped moving," Fulks recalled, "it was three miles outside of Creedmoor, North Carolina, just north of Durham and Chapel Hill. I was 13. My parents stayed in Creedmoor for over 20 years, so it's sort of like home."

"My parents probably wouldn't have considered themselves hippies, but they basically were," said Fulks: mid-'70s back-to-the-landers who raised animals and farmed 10 acres. "I don't know if it was quite self-sufficient, but that was the goal, and we made a good fit."

Fulks's earliest musical memories are his father's records, "from when I was 5. Music, folk music, was part of our daily lives. If we went on a car trip, it was, 'You sing tenor and you sing baritone.' Music was there in a way that I'm grateful for now.

"My dad liked bluegrass, especially Doc Watson and the Country Gentlemen. He loved the Doc Watson style, and I'd hear him practice it, trying to get 'Black Mountain Rag' into his fingers. He was constantly frustrated at not getting there, which is what put it in my mind, possibly in a competitive way, that this was something I was going to master.

"I started banjo when I was 7 and guitar at 11, and playing guitar was about all I did for a lot of years. It was an obsession, a daily craving between the ages of, say, 12 and 20. So that's eight solid years of not doing homework and spending hours every day on the fretboard. I spent a lot of time trying to play the electric guitar, and some of those people seeped into my acoustic vocabulary: Albert Lee, Ry Cooder, Amos Garrett, Robbie Robertson. But because acoustic became my thing, there's definitely a heavier footprint from acoustic guys like Norman Blake and Tony Rice and Doc Watson. Fingerstyle-wise, maybe John Hurt (footnote 1). Doc Watson, of course, was a great fingerstyle player.

"My other obsession was books, New York City Jewish writers in particular: Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, that gang. They were in an argument with the world. That whole era of mandarin American intellectuals was really exciting to me. It was the opposite of the culture I knew in North Carolina. It was part of what put it in my mind that I was going to New York, that I'd get out of this world, as far away from it as I could."

Which he did, in 1980, entering Columbia University. "I didn't especially want to go there; I wanted to be in New York. I phoned [folk/blues guitarist and singer] Dave Van Ronk as soon as I got to the city. I never went to him for lessons" (Van Ronk was a sought-after teacher of fingerstyle blues and ragtime guitar), "but some of my friends did, and I interfaced with Dave a little bit at Gerde's Folk City and the Speakeasy. He would sometimes emcee when I was part of the set.

"I didn't do very well at Columbia; I had my eye on music the whole time. I left after two years, hung around New York for a year, and moved to Chicago in 1983. I joined a bluegrass band called Special Consensus, and in a few months I went from 30 miles an hour to 65. And my vocabulary expanded. It's a fact: You have to get with the guys that do it, and you have to get your ass kicked, every day."

If bluegrass was Fulks's earliest love, by the mid-'80s, "I was passionately in love with country. The gamut: the Louvin Brothers and Jerry Lee and Webb Pierce and Hank Williams and Merle and George, the real stuff." But Merle Haggard's final #1 hit came in 1987, and, with the faux-country of Alabama and others clogging the airwaves and Garth Brooks and Shania Twain looming, the late-'80s were not a propitious time for a young neo-traditionalist to land a record deal. It took Fulks a decade. "I saved up money, made demos, sent them off to Warner Brothers and six other places, and got the brush-off. Finally [the alt-country Chicago label] Bloodshot took an interest in some songs, which by then were six or seven years old."

His 1996 debut, Country Love Songs, had its share of artistic triumphs, for instance, the honky-tonk shuffle "Tears Only Run One Way," which featured Tom Brumley, Buck Owens's pedal steel player—even early on, Fulks's stellar musicianship attracted some of country's highest-caliber players. "We cut the song in Missouri," Fulks recalled. "I got a little cassette of it and rode back to Chicago and plugged it in, and it was just thrilling to hear. It was the first time I thought, 'I can never top this.' That feeling hasn't occurred often, across the span of 30 years: cutting something and hearing it back and jumping up and down: 'I wrote that!'"

Country Love Songs and its 1997 sequel, South Mouth, sold, at most, 10,000 copies each, but it's safe to say they weren't intended to be hits. Like much of the day's country underground, Fulks played a sort of meta-country: sardonically self-referential, merciless sendups of Music City clichés; Fulks's and his buddies' knowing winks, if not leers, were aimed at alt-country's pocket-sized audience. To make ends meet, Fulks spent three years, 1994 to '97, as a staff songwriter for a Nashville publisher. "Nobody, not one artist, recorded any of my songs. I completely struck out." His farewell to corporate Nashville was the delicately titled "Fuck This Town." ("Can't get noticed/Can't get found/Can't get a cut/So fuck this town!")

Fulks soldiered on, without regard for, in virtual defiance of, the bottom line (there is, arguably, a self-destructive aspect to his stubborn contrarianism). Paradoxically, offers came in from a half-dozen majors including Columbia, Elektra, and Geffen. Geffen signed Fulks to a multi-record contract, which he sabotaged with Let's Kill Saturday Night (1998), his one and only major-label effort; even if Geffen had not been swallowed in a corporate merger and Fulks dismissed by the new owners, he likely would have been handed a few bucks and shown the door. Let's Kill Saturday Night fairly sparkles with brazenly unconventional, ie, unsaleable gems such as "Night Accident," in which a train bears down on two friends pinned inside a wrecked car; with rescue at hand, the car's driver refuses it, as good a metaphor as any for Fulks's subversion of his shot at major-label success.

Footnote 1: That's Mississippi John Hurt of course, not the late English actor. Hurt the musician (1893–1966) was a blues singer, folk balladeer, and distinctive fingerstyle guitarist from Avalon, Mississippi, who recorded a handful of songs in the late 1920s, returned to obscurity, and was rediscovered by blues enthusiasts in 1963, becoming a beloved figure on the folk-and-blues-club and festival circuit.