As a singer, Robbie Fulks is a rare specimen: at once chameleonic and distinctive, he inhabits characters with an ease that’s never quite easy, but vigorous and a little raw. There is the cartoonish Fulks who sings novelty songs about picking up women in bars; the sneering Fulks who excoriates mainstream country music with a wink and a pun; the drawling Fulks who reflects wistfully on his boyhood in the boonies and looks dubiously on his adulthood in the suburbs.
In the course of a decades-long career, his sonic palette has run the gamut as well. Fulks is most often located beneath the hazy cloud cover of “alt-country,” and he seems determined to further obfuscate the category at every turn. Past endeavors have drawn from honky-tonk, bluegrass, and rock ‘n’ roll, while 2010’s “Happy” featured a collection of Michael Jackson covers. Fulks will celebrate the release of his latest effort, “Gone Away Backward,” at Club Passim in Cambridge on Sept. 25. The album is notably devoid of electric guitar or drums, both of which have appeared prominently on previous recordings, and instead basks in the cozy communion of flat-picked guitar and fiddle.
Though “Gone Away Backward” has some obvious bluegrass ancestry, Fulks describes the record as “much starker” and more in line with “pre-bluegrass music.” “I was just really juking on these duo shows that I had been doing for the last couple years with other string players. Like a mandolin, or a fiddle, or another guitar, and me, played into a mic, kind of half-facing each other,” he says. “And that kind of thing, with an old man’s bent to the lyrics, a distinction from the young man’s point of view that I’d been doing for most of my earlier stuff—it just kind of felt fruitful in a way. It felt like a thing to go after.”
“Gone Away Backward” explores the same themes as Fulks’ previous records, this time with a touch of melancholy to his characteristic wit. In his hands, popular country music tropes become richer, as with the waltzy lament “That’s Where I’m From,” which elevates what might otherwise be a hokey celebration of rural America into a rueful meditation on upward mobility: “That’s where I’m from/ Where time passes slower/ That’s where I’m from/ Where it’s ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no sir’/ Can’t tell I’m country/ Well just you look closer/ It’s deep in my blood/ Two cars, a picket fence/ That’s where I’ve come/ Dirt roads and double-wides/ That’s where I’m from.”
This is well-worn territory for Fulks, who has wrestled with what it means to be “country” for years. It is, in fact, a favorite topic of country singers as a set, who love to wax nostalgic about pickup trucks and moonshine. But Fulks, who grew up in York, Pennsylvania, and now resides in Chicago, is both wary and possessive of his musical identity. Back in 2005, he was apt to exorcise such ambivalence with songs like “Countrier Than Thou,” a searing condemnation of country music’s less-than-authentic fans, described thusly on the album “Georgia Hard:” “Down at the bar a-spinnin’ Haggard he wore a Johnny Reb tattoo/ Overalls he spat and swaggered, lord he was a Boston Jew.”
Now 50, Fulks recognizes a similar paradox between his inward identity and the trappings of his middle class life. “That’s Where I’m From” was inspired by a move, seven years ago, to a suburb of Chicago, where he found himself feeling out of place. “We can save into middle age and then plop it down on a house on some tree-lined block in a decent school district,” Fulks explains. “But then, we’re all raising kids and the kids are coming up in a totally different environment than we grew up in. And so it’s kind of an interesting trade-off, you know, between getting out of a less-good place and then kind of realizing it’s what you are. What you’ve been trying to get away from is kind of what you are.”
Fulks is careful to clarify that he sings from the viewpoint of imaginary characters, no matter how personal the sentiment. Most of the details in “That’s Where I’m From,” like the narrator’s white collar and necktie, are made up. (The “mean billy-goat on a chain,” however, is “cribbed from life,” according to the singer’s website.) But Fulks seems to take merciless glee in penning songs that hit precariously close to home.
“Sometimes The Grass Is Really Greener” describes the predicament of a bluegrass musician who signs with a major label, prompting him to “shave a few rough edges down” and lose sight of himself in the process. Fulks, who spent a year and a half on Geffen Records before he was dropped, counts the brevity of his own brush with mainstream success a blessing.
“I’ve been really lucky. I think that’s sort of come with the territory of not having much of an audience in a way,” he muses. “On my first couple of records there was definite input from Bloodshot and from Geffen on what to do, but from the fourth record on, I haven’t had any of that input. I’ve just been totally doing what I want to do. I think if I had some sort of hypothetical choice between those two, like having a big audience and an easier life, but not being able to do exactly what I wanted to do, I like to think that I might choose the way that I’ve done it.”
The younger Fulks might have taken a tougher stance; in fact, he did, on 1997’s “South Mouth” in a song titled “F--k This Town,” which took ruthless aim at Nashville’s music industry. But the tone of “Sometimes The Grass Is Really Greener,” though tinged with regret, is ultimately one of acceptance. In the end, the singer finds his way home. It is here, too, that “Gone Away Backward” finds its sweet spot, in the uneasy intersection of bitterness and beauty. Sometimes, the grass is green enough right where you stand.
This article was originally published on September 18, 2013.
This program aired on September 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.