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Robbie Fulks Goes Home By Way Of A ‘Bluegrass Vacation’

Around the time that Robbie Fulks made the cover of the newly established and suddenly influential magazine No Depression in the fall of 1997, he threw the new alt-country movement into a tizzy of paradoxes. Fulks had neatly short hair and dressed like an ordinary young urban dude, no leather jackets or crunched up cowboy hats. His songs had hard country forms but they were darkly funny, even hilarious, which isn’t something we’d come to expect from Rodney Crowell or Dwight Yoakam.

Fulks also spouted off freely and cathartically about terrible Nashville commercial country music, culminating in the song “F*** This Town” on his 1997 South Mouth album, a song which lacks even a single couplet suitable for quoting in 2023. It’s the story of how Fulks became a disgruntled employee - a cog that failed to turn in the wheel of Music Row commerce. But his lack of success writing for a Nashville publisher, shooting for the goldmine of a Reba cut, helped Fulks choose his true path.

“I had one toe, so to speak, in the waters of Bloodshot Records, which was like a punk country music, do it yourself ethos,” he says in Episode 248 of The String. The other toe was on Music Row, where he spent a couple of frustrating years trying to kickstart a commercial songwriting career. “They were such different cultures, and both of my bosses at these places explicitly did not want me doing the other thing, because they thought it was counterproductive. Which was not a bad point.”

Frankly, turn-of-the-millennium radio country music didn’t deserve somebody as wily and sardonic as Fulks, who’d have been a formidable colleague of Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall had he arrived in the 1960s. It was clear from his debut album Country Love Songs that his was a voice made for free and unfettered speech. “She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)” and “Papa Was A Steel Headed Man” are just two of those songs that make you feel guilty for feeling amused.

For all of the sardonic honky tonk music of his early albums and the more character driven folk music from albums like Upland Stories and Gone Away Backward, Fulks can trace a strong bluegrass thread through his career. He grew up in a Doc Watson-loving household in North Carolina, picked up the banjo and flatpicked guitar as a kid, and joined the venerable bluegrass band Special Consensus as he established himself in the Chicago music scene. He’d touch on the genre here and there, but now he’s finally written and recorded Bluegrass Vacation, a 12-song collection that touches on classic themes and high lonesome textures.

Its masterpiece is “Longhair Bluegrass,” a first-hand account and a lesson in modern music history about when the New Grass Revival and their progressive ilk emerged in the early 70s. Fulks name checks Clarence White, Norman Blake, David Grisman and more, while singing: “(Bill)) Monroe is still the King, But now his church has a new wing, Where an outcast like me can feel at home.”

“It was like the British Invasion,” says Fulks as he talks about the Culpepper, VA festival in 1973 that he attended with his parents and that inspired the song. “This is at the time when the bluegrass scene was bubbling over with this younger generation. And the older generation, who were sartorially and culturally quite different from the younger folks, were aghast at some of the the way these people looked. But my view of this section of history is that people like Sam Bush and Tony (Rice) played so well that they could not be excluded from this camp, because the camp is all based on quality of playing.”

No surprise then to find some of the best pickers in American music working with Fulks on this Compass Records release. Fans will hear the familiar touches of Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, Ronnie McCoury, Alison Brown, John Cowan and Jerry Douglas. Tim O’Brien joins for a hearty duet on “Nashville Blues,” the one cover in the set.

Also interesting, if not amusing, is that Fulks wrote this album in a new place, having moved to Los Angeles in recent years with his wife after decades of being deeply associated with Chicago’s music scene. In our conversation he reports fitting in quickly in the new surroundings and that the music came naturally. “Everybody's kind of the same all over. But in these urban environments, there's a special engagement with this kind of music, like we need this to get away from this dense social environment that we're in - and the escape that country music offers, and that feeling of openness and a certain kind of down to earth humanity.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>