On the Edge: Robbie Fulks

photo courtesy Bloodshot Records

Country maverick Robbie Fulks has been at it for nearly 30 years, putting out albums that defy easy categorization and show many different shades of twang. Robbie’s latest, the contemplative, acoustic Gone Away Backward, finds the Chicago resident reaching back to his upbringing in rural Appalachia and the sounds he heard when he was a child.

Backed by a group of formidible pickers like Mike Bub and Jenny Scheinman in a warm, live setting, Robbie tells of small towns wracked by economic hardship and of restless drifters. There’s an anachronistic feel, as if songs such as “Long I Ride” and “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” could have been conceived before World War II, but it’s all viewed through a modern lens. “Almost every record I’ve done has been a concept record because I try to think of what the poles are that I’m gonna work in between,” explains Robbie. “On this one it seemed like the songs were veering toward a certain place—acoustic, bluegrass and pre-bluegrass acoustic country with a Southern gothic tinge to it.” 

That stylistic direction, Robbie notes, had to do with looking back on his own early musical experiences as well as his current listening habits. “Before I had really developed tastes of my own independent of my parents, I was just listening to what they were playing: Doc Watson, Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs,” he notes. “It was easy to tap into the early memories and it probably also reflects my diet when I was writing the songs. I’ve been listening to a lot of Delmores and Carter Family and Dave Macon recently—more than when I was in my 20s, 30s and early 40s.”

Robbie examines growing up country in “That’s Where I’m From,” his white-collar narrator recalling dirt hard as gravel before making a more comfortable life for his own family. Instead of the list of clichés, there’s a sense of how rural raising motivates and shapes a life. And in spite of current trends, Robbie still thinks mainstream country is making positive strides since his brief fling with Nashville. “I worked on the Row in the mid-’90s. It was a super-successful time for country music,” he recalls. “It was a gold rush and that’s what brought me down there. The painful effect of it was that everything had to sound kind of sappy and message oriented.” 

He left discouraged, penning the immortal kiss-off tune “F--k This Town,” but notes that Shania Twain and Toby Keith helped kick down the doors for gutsy artists like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves who followed. But, he points out, country’s universe has always been much larger than what’s on the radio, anyway. “I’m not begrudging anybody the right to go out and make money from his music,” he offers. “[But] it would be nicer to leave the names out of it a little more and just concentrate on quality lyrics and songs, which I think is country’s forte.”

At least you can count on Robbie to keep delivering that.

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