Capable of telling haunting stories that reach into old weird Americana with a sense of life live simply yet richly.— Austin Chronicle
In 1993, a songwriter banging around the Chicago club scene with a twangy voice and dangerous sense of humor caught our attention. We started making records with him, and as part of the first-generation Bloodshot roster, Robbie Fulks helped us define “Alternative Country.” In 2013, after two decades of playing music everywhere from the taverns of southern Illinois to the honky-tonks of northern Norway, from Austin City Limits’s soundstage to the historic Grand Ole Opry, he reunited with us for the highly acclaimed Gone Away Backward.
Upland Stories continues and — with sprinklings of pedal steel, drums, electric guitar, and keyboards — expands the sound of that acoustic set. Fulks’s richly emotional storytelling is illuminated by his instrumental prowess and emotional voice. At 53, he is philosophically reflective, writing “with clear eyes and a full heart” (Ken Tucker, NPR). Don’t get us wrong, his wit is still as quick as his picking; but it’s reflected through the lens of fatherhood, marriage, middle age, and the literary voices he is drawn to and draws from: Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor, Javier Marias, James Agee. Three new songs—“Alabama at Night,” “America Is A Hard Religion,” and “A Miracle” — are meditations inspired by Agee’s 1936 trip to Alabama, the sojourn that fueled his furious polemic on American poverty, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s in Virginia and North Carolina, at the edge of the broad “upland” region referenced in the record’s title, also provided depth and detail for Fulks’s songs about the mysteries of memory, the vanishing of cherished things, and the struggles of everyday life. Robbie tries to make songs that offer more than verse-chorus-hook: songs that have space, calmness, unresolved tensions, and the hallmarks of lived experience. This sort of complexity is displayed in “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals,” an intimate folk song from the perspective of a man who has let life’s possibilities pass him by, and in “Never Come Home,” in which a sick man returns to spend his last days among an unwelcoming clan of pious, hard-bitten East Tennesseans.
Accompanying him is an incredible cast. Todd Phillips emerged in the 1970s as bassist in David Grisman’s and Tony Rice’s classic lineups. Frequent Bill Frisell collaborator Jenny Scheinman played violin, as did Shad Cobb (Osborne Brothers, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson). The two Chicagoans on the record are Flatlanders guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and trad-jazz drummer Alex Hall. The multi-faceted utility string wizard Fats Kaplin (Jack White) and legendary avant-gardist Wayne Horvitz (Naked City, Paul Taylor, Zony Mash) complete the extraordinary ensemble. Steve Albini, who began working with Robbie on Halloween night 1986, recorded the group’s live singing and playing on old German mics using a non-automated Neotek board, creating, as he always does, a provocatively unvarnished and analogically resonant stereo image.
Twenty years ago, Robbie’s exuberance for old-school country made a lot of noise. Today, his storytelling through folk and bluegrass music on Upland Stories delivers the quieter, sometimes unsettling truths of humanity.
“Some people get where they hope to in this world. Most of us don’t.” – James Agee
Robbie Fulks was born in York, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a half-dozen small towns in southeast Pennsylvania, the North Carolina Piedmont, and the Blue Ridge area of Virginia. He learned guitar from his dad, banjo from Earl Scruggs and John Hartford records, and fiddle (long since laid down in disgrace) on his own. He attended Columbia College in New York City in 1980 and dropped out in 1982 to focus on the Greenwich Village songwriter scene and other ill-advised pursuits.
In the mid-1980s he moved to Chicago and joined Greg Cahill’s Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, with whom he made one record (Hole in My Heart, Turquoise, 1989) and toured constantly. Since then he has gone on to create a multifarious career in music. He was a staff instructor in guitar and ensemble at Old Town School of Folk Music from 1984 to 1996. He worked on Nashville’s Music Row as a staff songwriter for Songwriters Ink (Joe Diffie, Tim McGraw, Ty Herndon) from 1993 to 1998. He has released 10 solo records on the Bloodshot, Geffen, Boondoggle (self), and Yep Roc labels, including the influential early alt-country records Country Love Songs (1996) and South Mouth (1997), and the widely acclaimed Georgia Hard (2005).
Radio: multiple appearances on WSM’s “Grand Ole Opry”; PRI’s “Whadd’ya Know”; NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Mountain Stage,” and “World Cafe”; and the syndicated “Acoustic Cafe” and “Laura Ingraham Show.” TV: PBS’s Austin City Limits; NBC’s Today, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Last Call with Carson Daly, and 30 Rock. TV/film use of his music includes True Blood, My Name Is Earl, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, Very Bad Things, and Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, and he has voiced or sung campaigns for Budweiser, McDonald's, Nickelodeon, and Applebee's. From 2004 to 2008, he hosted an hourlong performance/interview program for XM satellite radio, “Robbie’s Secret Country.” His compositions have been covered by Sam Bush, Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms, Rosie Flores, John Cowan, and Old 97's.
Robbie’s writing on music and life have appeared in GQ, Blender, Chicago Reader, DaCapo Press’s Best Music Writing anthologies for 2001 and 2004, Amplified: Fiction from Leading Alt-Country, Indie Rock, Blues and Folk Musicians, and A Guitar and A Pen: Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters. As an instrumentalist, he has accompanied the Irish fiddle master Liz Carroll, the distinguished jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, and the New Orleans pianist Dr. John. As a producer his credits include Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck (Sugar Hill, 2004) and Big Thinkin’ by Dallas Wayne (Hightone, 2000). Theatrical credits include Woody Guthrie’s American Song and Harry Chapin’s Cottonpatch Gospel. He served twice as judge for the Winfield National Flatpicking Guitar competition. He tours yearlong with various configurations and plays a weekly residency at the Hideout in Chicago.
His 11th record, Gone Away Backward, returned him to his bluegrass days and extends the boundaries of that tradition with old-time rambles and sparely orchestrated, acoustic reflections on love, the country life, the slings of time, and the struggles of common people. His new album Upland Stories (2016) continues this tradition with the additional of drums and several electric instruments. Both albums were recorded by Steve Albini.
WHAT THE EGGHEADS ARE SAYING ABOUT ROBBIE FULKS...
New York Times: “Mr. Fulks is more than a songwriter. He's a gifted guitarist, a soulful singer with an expressive honky-tonk tenor, and he's a natural performer. But what really sets him apart is his songwriting.”
Journal of Country Music: “Walking to the beat of a different drum, singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks has carved a path between punk iconoclasm and country traditionalism, the Sundowners and Steve Albini, Bloodshot and Geffen, Chicago and Nashville.”
SPIN: “The most underappreciated singer-songwriter in America.”
Chicago Tribune: “Robbie Fulks is hotter than a Gatling gun! 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.”
New Yorker: “An alternative-country hero, wedding pedal-steel-sweet tunes and perfect, elegant lyrics with the best of them.”
Chicago Reader: “I wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to say Robbie Fulks is the best country artist in Chicago—what bothers me is that the title seems so inadequate.”
Seattle Stranger: “If Robbie Fulks were the prime ambassador of country music, we'd all be country-music fans. His songwriting and guitar picking have their roots in country but stretch their curlicue branches toward bluegrass, rock 'n' roll, jazz, experimental, and more. And his wit, both in lyrics and stage banter, is unmatched by almost any live musician working today.”
Tim O’Brien: “Soul bluegrass for the modern day hillbilly. No polite cabin worship or protooled pretending here, Robbie’s songs tell true workingman's stories with all the punch of the Stanley Brothers or George Jones.”
Bill Frisell: “Robbie always gets me going. Inspires me. His writing, singing, and awesome guitar playing. All the stuff is in there. Happy, sad, mad, light, dark, old, new. The whole deal. It's real.”
Rhett Miller: "There may be flashier songwriters than Robbie Fulks, but there are none better.”
Michael McKean: "My favorite songwriters can break your heart and/or make me laugh: Noel Coward, Loudon Wainwright, Randy Newman, very few others. Robbie Fulks has joined that august company. He sits a mean guitar, too, and sings like he learned from the C&W greats and made it his own, which is exactly what he did."
Tina Fey: “Robbie Fulks is an alt-country genius.”
Official Website: Robbie Fulks Online