Robbie Fulks calls his music “country or maybe folk,” but that description would have been too simple back in 1997 when the Chicago Tribune raved about his then-new album.
“Robbie Fulks is hotter than a Gatling gun!” the newspaper’s music writer, Rick Reger, wrote. “No longer just a promising young C&W traditionalist, Fulks' brilliant new LP, South Mouth, unveils a masterly, multifaceted songwriter who can belt out hip-shaking honky-tonk, honeydew pop, and chilling little ballads with an unrivaled skill and spirit. So good, he's scary.”
The glowing reviews haven’t slowed down for this singer-songwriter who has lived in the Chicago area for 33 years. Fulks’ most recent album, Upland Stories, met critical acclaim when it was released last April. It was nominated for two 2017 Grammy Awards: Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song (“Alabama at Night,” the album’s opening track).
Fulks tells me the album is different from others in his catalog “because the orchestration is unusual.” Listeners will hear numerous instruments, including acoustic and electric keyboards, pedal steel, electric guitar, mandolin, ukulele, string bass, drums, flat-top guitar, and violins.
“I can’t think of another record with that combo of colors, though there must be one somewhere,” Fulks says.
Some reviewers have said Upland Stories and songs on previous albums succeeded because they lacked or toned down Fulks’ characteristic sense of humor. Fulks isn’t buying it.
“I think a lack of a sense of humor hinders a lot of musicians’ work — sometimes it hinders whole genres,” he says. The No Depression genre, if that’s such a thing, can be a little arid or self-important for my tastes. One of the qualities that draws me to the great country music of the classic era is the uptempo joyfulness, cut-up novelties, and love of wordplay. That’s mainly why those things sometimes show up on my record — a love of tradition.
“What’s hindered potentially, and was actually hindered at times during the first eight or so years of my career, is my reputation, because some segment of the audience for serious music is most definitely uninterested in humor expressed in music. Of course, it’s possible what I think is funny, someone else doesn’t. But what would be funnier yet is for the humor-averse listenership to go straight to hell!”
An increasing number of critics, though, appreciate Fulks’ funny bone and are placing his songs in songwriter classicdom. And there’s many more about to come off the 53-year-old musician’s palette.
“Right now,” he says, “I’m working on a play about a small-town Opry, writing and recording songs, producing a Linda Gail Lewis record, promoting my Grammy nominations and, as always, traveling hither and yon making music.”
Many other traveling minstrels have left a lasting impression on Fulks. He says the best and most influential concert he attended was in Richmond, Virginia, in 1973 at a college gym or basketball arena.
“I’m sorry I can’t remember more of the particulars,” he says. “Doc and Merle Watson were the first act, just them as a duo. John Hartford was the second act, and Earl Scruggs Revue was the last act. My parents said before the show, ‘Well, we’ll enjoy the first and third acts and just sit as patiently as we can through the middle.’ But afterward, we looked at each other and said, ‘Holy shit! I think that John Hartford guy was the best of all of them!’
“Anyway, they were all great, although Earl Scruggs played way too loud, and I lost my hearing for two days after. I recorded the show on a little cassette recorder and listened to it many times through my teenage years. I think that show — the great drive, prodigiousness and blues-centric repertoire of Doc, the humor and versatility of Hartford, the easygoing experimental attitude of all three — inspired me and directed my path more than any other single show I’ve seen.”
Fulks recalls a hot performance by another set of bluegrass artists, the Johnson Mountain Boys, at the Old Town School in Chicago in the mid-1980s. “They were gods, and their set was paced like they all had to go to the bathroom bad — like the Ramones and on fire!”
At New York’s Beacon Theatre in 1981, Leo Kottke performed one of the best folk shows Fulks has seen.
“I'm not his biggest fan,” Fulks says, “but it was a model of how to do a sitting-down-with-guitar one-man show. He played great and was perfectly charming and verbose between songs.”
Fulks says he saw few country shows before he became a recording artist. But the best ones he witnessed were Hank Snow at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1977 (“hearing Kayton Roberts play was awesome”) and Ricky Skaggs at the Pier in Raleigh in 1980 after Sweet Temptation was released. “Bruce Bouton, Bobby Hicks, and Ray Flacke were in the band for God’s sake!” Fulks exclaims.
He hasn’t attended many rock concerts but really enjoyed Cheap Trick at an outdoor festival in Rye, a small town near the coast in southern England, in 2001.
“They were pretty inspiring,” Fulks says. “They had strong music skills that were a little masked by attitude and comedy. Half the audience was pissed off, because they were beetle-browed English people. There's a surprising amount of difference in English and American musical values.”
Another pissed-off crowd — and the humor that Fulks so loves — were essential parts of the rock show Fulks considers the best one he has seen.
“NRBQ at the Ritz in New York City in 1982 made a big impression on me,” he says. “They trudged through an endless, complete version of ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ with half the audience booing after about the fourth minute. It turned out it was the last song of the set. They left with half the audience booing and the other half trying to get an encore. The latter half won. But they came back out and replayed ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’"