Recorded and mixed by Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago, Gone Away Backward finds Fulks re-evaluating his roots and lamenting the decline of the small-town and rural America in which he was raised. After 20 years on the road, in 2008 Fulks began performing in unplugged, small-group settings. Regular sessions at the Barbes in Brooklyn and an ongoing residency at Chicago’s favorite tavern, The Hideout, gave him wider freedom to experiment and improvise, and offered intimacy and challenge with a wide variety of musicians. He learned a few hundred new songs and, in the process, developed fresh angles on his own narrative voice. Excited and freshly focused, he began writing music for a new project.
At the center of Gone Away Backward is Fulks’s gold-dusted vocals and prodigious guitar picking, at times spirited and brisk (“Pacific Slope”), elsewhere spare and sentimental (as on the heartbreakingly gorgeous ballad “That’s Where I’m From”). The album is rooted deeply in the interplay between Fulks and a brilliant cast of Appalachian-style slingers: Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Mike Bub, and Ron Spears, collectively playing banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and adding airtight and warm vocal harmonies (just bathe your ears in “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener”).
There is a dynamic humility allowing each song’s anecdotal tale to unfold and construct, built upon the barren honesty of acoustic instrumentation and voice. These are songs drawn out of the rolling hills, harvested from fields with “dirt hard as gravel”, and remembered on the shores of dying rivers.
"Long I Ride” is narrated by a drifting troubadour whose wry discontent enlarges, as he moves verse by verse from state to state, from the heat (“I went up on Jackson Hill, at a diner I sat down/and I waved at every stranger just to move the air around”) to the rich (“These New York folks will treat you kind when your wallet’s in your hand/ but a six-string on your shoulder could be the Devil’s brand…I’d trade every brick on Wall Street for one 'Black Mountain Rag'”) to God ("They say that there's a wondrous land for any good man that dies/And if it's got drink and women, well, then I'll be surprised"). The first-person of "That's Where I'm From," by contrast, is a father at the end of a farm-to-middle-class struggle taking melancholy note of his children: "I've watched them grow, now I see/One thing separates them from me/And that's where I'm from." And by further contrast, the father who sings to his newborn child in "The Many Disguises of God" presents his paternal abandonment as an incident in a dark cosmological pattern, witnessed from without, by revelation.
Gone Away Backward is as hopeful as it is dark, modern as it is historical, foreign just like it’s familiar. It’s autobiographical and all-embracing storytelling. Compassionate while cold-shouldered. City and country. MP3 and dusty 45.
Robbie plays by nobody's rules--except the ones he hears in his head. He is prodigiously talented, with the soul of a country singer and the mind of a vaudevillian. Besides, his scorn for the music industry makes ours look positively prosaic. But don't let that make you lose sight of THE SONGS.
Widely regarded by those who monitor such things as one of the most gifted songwriters to ever ply the trade, he can sing the kids ditty "Eggs" and Haggard's "Sing a Sad Song" back to back and mean 'em both. While it is true he started off a honky tonk smartass, it quickly became evident that Robbie was a monster talent and some of his early Bloodshot albums have been rightly elevated to the status of "classic" and serve as their own Greatest Hits collections. Seriously.
It is a damning condemnation of our world's musical taste that he has not been elevated to the ranks of the multi-faceted giants of songwriting like Nick Lowe, Dave Alvin and Harlan Howard. He damn well should be. Robbie's cross-genre antics (like us, he has trouble navigating this world of hyphens) would have had him revered in times gone by; such artists used to be coveted, now they confuse. We take it personally that he's not more famous and consider it evidence of our world's moral and aesthetic decline.
Lost in the deserved accolades for being a fabulously unique, clever, and heartfelt writer is the fact that he's also one of the best guitarists around. The chameleon-like tall guy can whip it out in honky-tonk, country, bluegrass, power pop, or whatever strikes his ample whimsy at the time.
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 solo records on the Bloodshot, Geffen, Boondoggle (self), and Yep Roc labels.
Radio loves him too: there's been 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, 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, McDonalds, Nickelodeon, and Applebees. 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 97s.
Robbie’s writing on music and life have appeared in GQ, Blender, the 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.
Impressive, eh? But it wouldn't mean nothing if he couldn't consistently and inventively whip a room into an appreciative froth no matter what he plays, how he plays it and who he plays it with.
If he comes to your town, you need to experience one of the most talented PERFORMERS out there.
Official Website: Robbie Fulks Online