Interview by Harry Kaplan
Robbie Fulks is a dynamic performer with a career that has lasted 30 years and is still going strong. The 2016 album Upland Stories was Fulks’ 13th. I wrote 12th in the interview, but upon further review, it is his 13th. No question, he is an incredible talent that is willing to put in the work to constantly improve. Given those facts, the most impressive characteristics about Robbie is that he is very humble and incredibly gracious. He is the same guy in the dressing room as he is on stage: warm, compassionate, charming, and has a great sense of humor. Did I mention that he can write, sing, and play his ass off? Let’s read what Mr. Fulks has to say:
TL = TwangriLa RF = Robbie Fulks
TL: Thank you for taking the time out to meet with me. I do appreciate it.
TL: You’ve been at this for a number of years. What keeps it fun for you?
RF: Being open to new things—I like to learn. I think that’s what keeps me at it. Writing a new tune, learning a new cord, learning a new lick. Trying to get better. Trying to get better is just a lifetime’s worth of work
I started when I was 11, and—no. I started guitar when I was 11. I started playing when I was seven. Started gigging when I was 15. And I’m 54. So—
TL: That’s good. I’m 51. So we’re in the 50 club. Salud. (laughter)
RF: It’s a good time. (laughter)
TL: It is, actually.
RF: We made it.
RF: Just got to wait around to die. (laughter)
TL: So “Upland Stories” is your 12th studio album?
RF: That sounds right.
TL: There were some live ones in there. But I think it’s the 12th. If you were to compare “Country Love Songs,” your first album, with your last, the one you just did, “Upland Stories”—what would you say has changed in your style from then to now?
RF: Writing-wise, more confidence in sounding unlike other recordings. I’d say, when I started, I was definitely interested in—the thing that sounded best to me, was as close as I could sound to that I liked. Whether it was, the Beatles or the Ramones or whatever.
And now, if I sound too much like those things, I would consider it more of a failing, usually. So I’m looking to put something original into the world. Now I’m an old guy, I have more experiences to draw from. And just more confidence to say things my own way.
TL: More of a confidence and experience thing?
RF: That’s a lot of it. Because the actual process of making the records, it’s a little hard to learn, because as you say, 12 times, plus whatever else I do with other people, it’s not a big fund of experience to draw on. Making a record every other year, it’s a little hard to remember what you did two and four years ago. So you try to remember that, and try to get a little better at it. But the procedure for me is more or less, the first one and the last one are more alike than some stuff in the middle. As I tried different techniques, I’ve tried to record in a more modern way, to use an over-simplified word, to overdub a lot of things.
I was pretty sure, at the beginning, that that wasn’t my style, but I wanted to test myself, and I enjoyed experimenting with that, but now, I think that’s done with. I think that my style is definitely a live performing style.
TL: Do you consider yourself a recording artist, or a live performer, or a little bit of both?
RF: Live performer. The records are a challenge for me, and I love doing them, but I can’t afford to do as many as I would probably do, if somebody were just footing the bill for each of them, in a way that I would like. Anyway, I perform 150 times a year or whatever, I feel very comfortable with that. And making records is always like, it’s educational, and uncertain, and a little bit risky.
TL: Right. You have, now, in 12 albums, you have so much material. Is it hard to write now, without thinking, “Have I covered that before?” How do you draw from the well and come up with new material? Is it difficult?
RF: It hasn’t been difficult, really, no.
TL: That’s good.
RF: Other than, I hear myself, definitely, reusing ideas. Chord moves that just kind of sound like that’s a thing I do. And melody ideas and so forth. Since lyrics are part of that mix, that’s an easy way to keep it moving along and non-repetitive. I don’t think I repeat a lot of lyrical ideas.
And there’s so many ways of saying things. New things flitting through your mind, you know, how your mind is different when you’re 55 than when you’re 45 and when you’re 35. So that keeps developing and changing. So that makes it easier.
TL: I find, too, writing for myself, the fear of how other people look at it means nothing, the older I get.
RF: Right. Exactly.
TL: So when I was younger, I might probably, subconsciously—the way I wrote something would be reflective of that. Now, I don’t care.
RF: Yeah, you cover your ass a little bit more when you’re young. Now, I don’t try to prove anything, except to myself.
TL: Exactly. I totally understand that. I was looking at your bio, you were born up the road in York, Pennsylvania?
TL: And I guess you spent most of your time in North Carolina?
RF: Well, we moved like every year, sometimes more than once a year. So I was born in York, and was there around three years. When I was three, we moved around Pennsylvania for a while, and then Virginia for a couple of years, and then we got to North Carolina by the time that I was 12—I guess? And ended up staying there for 20-some years. Stayed there through high school. Evenly divided allegiances, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
TL: Right. I guess where, you consider yourself, I guess, more identified with North Carolina?
RF: No. Honestly, it’s kind of split. But sometimes I publicly do that because I feel like it makes the best sense, musically. To say that North Carolina’s my home. Doc Watson comes from there. Thelonious Monk comes from there. And those two are great guiding stars for me. Every day, really.
It’s probably an incorrect idea, really, but there’s something about North Carolina that mixes stuff up and spurs creativity of the kind that Doc and Thelonious had. Original voices, so strong, and the chops were so strong. And you have this open space around you in which to develop these strange ideas.
TL: So you drew on that sort of environment. That’s pretty good.
RF: Well, I look up to it. And aspire to it.
TL: Those are two pretty dynamic performers. I didn’t realize—I knew Doc Watson was from North Carolina. I didn’t know Thelonious Monk—
RF: Yeah, because he’s from Rocky Mount. He’s not far from where Doc is from. So I always think, they were born like two or three years apart, in a really close section there, and I always thought that was kind of interesting. It’s probably fanciful, that there’s any commonality.
TL: I wonder if they ever knew each other.
RF: (laughter) I doubt they hung out.
TL: No, I don’t think so. Totally different (laughter) lifestyles and styles of music. Unique.
You have an interesting story, though, you went to college, Columbia, and left school to follow your muse. That’s the dream of everybody, I think. At least it should be.
RF: To go to New York?
TL: To just follow, follow what you love, follow your dream.
RF: I guess so. I was there to go to school, and I didn’t want to go school, I wanted to do what you’re saying. I tried both of them but I failed at school, and more or less failed out of it. But being in New York was exciting. I loved being there. But I’ve been in Chicago now for 34 years, I guess, so I’m basically a Chicagoan.
TL: So you’re a local.
TL: Well, that’s a great place.
RF: It is. It’s cool.
TL: I like that area. I just wish it didn’t get so darn cold in the winter.
RF: It’s awful.
TL: Other than that, it’s a great city. So you mentioned, you play 150 shows a year. Away from home?
RF: Maybe an exaggeration. I think I play 100 to 130 away from home, and then if there’s a new record out, 150 I play, easily, I would say.
TL: As you got older, is it harder to tour? Do you find it more difficult?
RF: No, not really. I’ve figured it out by now. How to do it, so it’s pretty comfortable.
TL: That’s good. You have a unique, really wonderful picking style and guitar technique. Is that self-taught? Did somebody influence you?
RF: Well, Doc, like I said. When I was a kid, Tony Rice came along. His voice is so strong, on the guitar, that he’s been influencing people, I would say unduly influencing people, for the last 40 years. When he popped out, it was like, holy Moses, it was like Christ popped out of a cloud or something, I mean, I didn’t know you could do this on the guitar. What is this brain behind this? And his hands, you know.
I never did really crack his code. Like Doc, somehow I could crack the code a little bit better. And like this [plays guitar] “Black Mountain Rag” came to be more easily than Tony’s [plays guitar]. And Tony’s just plain bluegrass guitar playing, I could kind of emulate. But when he, as he often did, just took off on those jazz flights, that kind of took my breath away.
So I learned from Doc Watson records, and I learned from my dad. And then, because I also listened to, admired a lot of guitar playing outside of bluegrass, from Amos Garrett to Blind Blake to Ry Cooder—I think that’s why I’m not in that bluegrass closet that a lot of guys sound like they’re in. That they just listened to that, deeply to that one kind of music. So if I’m playing along on a bluegrass song [plays guitar] all of a sudden, you know, I can do a Chuck Berry lick or maybe take a rest and put some space in it. Not often enough.
TL: I know what you mean. I think, bluegrass especially, there’s a tendency for a lot of it to sound the same.
TL: My preference for artists is ones that incorporate some bluegrass elements but don’t really fly totally down the bluegrass path.
RF: Yeah, with bluegrass it’s just, there aren’t a lot of guys like me. It’s hard to be really credible in any way as a bluegrass guitarist unless you just devote so many hours to, and brain cells, to it. So, if I’m playing like pure bluegrass, I would sound about like probably 75 percent of the way there. And David Grier would listen and say, “Ah, you know, he’s trying to figure it out, but he’s not quite there.” But if you consider me as a guy that is a little bit of a composite.
TL: And I would say “composite” is the right term. The last album sounded, it had some Celtic elements.
RF: It did?
TL: I think so. Some of the tracks, to me, sounded a little Celtic. But a lot of that is incorporated in country music anyway.
RF: Maybe it’s the way that the fiddling is.
TL: It was the fiddling, it was a little bit of the time. The beat. A couple of the songs.
RF: Cool. I’ll take that.
TL: I noticed the difference, like I said, while I was asking the question, between the first album and that one. The first one is more, I’d say, traditional honky-tonk. And this one, like I said is more Celtic. There’s more space. Some things are little more atmospheric.
RF: And I think that, I’m very deliberately trying to make it so that there’s not a word for it.
TL: No, that’s fine. I’m wrapping up. You answered most of the questions that I had. The last one is, new projects for you. Are you planning a new album, or are you working with other people?
RF: I’ve got an exciting album of duets coming out, with Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee’s sister. I’ve been a big fan of hers from a long time back. And we started on this thing; also a while back.
And then I’ve got a record of re-versioned of Bob Dylan. It’s a cover of a record of his, “Street Legal,” and most of the versions are radically different. A couple aren’t. And then I’ve got about a 50-song digital download that I’m working on. I did that before. It’s a decade with 50 songs, and it’s a good tool for me to bring in a little seed money. Write a bunch of songs, too.
TL: That’s great. So how can people get in touch with you, find out about what you’re doing?
RF: I’m absurdly accessible through Facebook; too accessible. I post on Twitter and Facebook.
TL: Okay, that’s good. And of course, they can get your album from Bloodshot or through Amazon—
RF: Bloodshot, iTunes, Amazon. At the show is always good.
TL: The merch table.
RF: Yes. The merch table.
TL: Does pretty well, I hear. A lot of artists tell me that that’s where they sell most of their swag, is at the shows.
RF: Yeah, I don’t sell most of my records at shows. And I used to sell, I don’t know, the last time I was here was, probably 18 years ago. And in those days, if I had a new record out, selling 50, 60, 70 after the show wasn’t uncommon. No more, those days—I don’t think it’s me, I think people aren’t buying that, the CDs. Having the LPs makes up for a little bit. But yeah, I’m selling half or less than half of that, of what I used to sell.
TL: A lot of them say that too. It’s hard. You can’t make a living as a recording artist anymore.
TL: Unless you’re one of the Beyoncés or Taylor Swift or somebody like that. That’s a very small group.
RF: The shows are my bread and butter. And that’s been really steady, and maybe even improving a little bit over the last 30 years. And the Grammy nominations didn’t hurt, and probably helped a little bit.
TL: That was all the questions that I had.
RF: Thank you.
TL: Thank you. It was a pleasure meeting you.
RF: Yeah, likewise. Are you staying around for the thing?
TL: Oh yeah. I’m gonna stay for the show.
RF: That’s right, because you review the show, right?
TL: Yes for sure, I’ll review your set. Looking forward to it.