Robbie Fulks on how not to be "a guy in his 50s singing about sex or good times or even the opposite, about married contentedness"

Alt-country's former firebrand talks to Salon about Chekhov, writing about poverty and ditching libertarianism

Published March 31, 2016 10:57PM (EDT)


There was a time when Robbie Fulks came off as, well, brash.

At the height of empty-hat country music in the ’90s, Fulks was writing subversive throwbacks to Buck Owens, like “She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died),” “God Isn’t Real” and “Fuck This Town,” his love letter to the Nashville country music establishment. A few years later, he was taking pleasure in publicly needling Ryan Adams, and a few years after that, he played against type with the 2010 release “Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson,” which was, in fact, a genuine tribute to the pop star, who had died in 2009.

More recently, Fulks has toned down his satiric streak and put the emphasis on his considerable musical chops. “When I was younger, I was more interested in slashing and burning and making an impression,” Fulks says. “I feel like now it’s more appropriate for me not to strive to make an impression and just be the thing that I am and people can look at it, or not look at it.”

He pared back to mostly acoustic instruments and a pronounced bluegrass flavor on his stark 2013 album “Gone Away Backward,” culled from a 50-song collection he posted online in 2010. His new album “Upland Stories” follows a similar understated path with a dozen earthy new songs recorded with Steve Albini and featuring bassist Todd Phillips, violinists Jenny Scheinman and Shad Cobb, guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, drummer Alex Hall, multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz.

Ever the contrarian, Fulks doesn’t attribute his new material to musical influences so much as literary inspirations. Along with James Agee and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” his seminal Depression-era exploration of poverty in the South, Fulks cites the writers Flannery O’Conner, Anton Chekhov and the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. It often makes for a more somber sensibility, though Fulks’ wry sense of humor remains fully intact on “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man.”

The Chicago singer talked with Salon about the challenges of distilling works of literature into song ideas, the growing social consciousness in his music and why, despite his libertarian leanings, he plans to cast a vote for the status quo in November.

Writers like Chekhov and Javier Marias aren’t part of the standard alt-country canon. How did they work their way into your songs?

I sort of hesitate to go too far with that in music, because I feel like avoiding being seen as pretentious: “Please don’t consider me a musician but a poet,” which I find disagreeable. But once I started doing it a little bit, and then doing it more, it seemed to make more sense. It’s kind of an unexplored area. It’s an area where it’s easy to fail, but if you can pull it off, then you’re really in a high place in the Empyrean, if you know what I mean. Paul Simon has done it well, and four other people, or whatever. So it’s a high goal to aim for. But for me, it also makes sense with my age, because when you’re 52 and you’ve done 10 or 12 records, then you’ve kind of exhausted the personal angles to some extent, and I don’t want to hear a guy in his 50s singing about sex or good times or even the opposite, about married contentedness. And all the subjects like that that are sort of natural to middle-aged guys are kind of conflict-free and so to me, it makes sense to go into this other area that I really love and that is a big part of my life and take ideas and characters and storylines and let myself be guided or inspired by that.

Where there particular works that inspired you?

I have a couple Chekhov favorites, but there’s one called “Peasants,” where a sick guy from Moscow goes to the country to return to his people and is entirely unsuccessful and eventually dies. The story has a depressing arc, but along the way it also takes a few surprising turns into describing the community, and into the religiosity of the community, and some ancillary characters pop up and then go away. It’s that story that comes to bear on my song “Never Come Home,” which is transplanted to Tennessee. And Javiar Marias I just came to in the last two years or whenever Edward St. Alban wrote about him in The New York Times. I thought I’d better look into that guy. Like one of my friends said of NRBQ when he saw them for the first time, he said, “I didn’t realize you were allowed to do that.” And I think for me, writing like that has the same effect, that you can willfully break established traditional connections, you can play with punctuation, with chapter breaks, you can make huge dramatic plot episodes take a sentence and long winding digressions inside somebody’s head take 20 pages. You can do anything, so to me, his style is liberating.

How does that sort of thing translate into your music, where you’re working in a much more concise form?

The implication of that question points to where efforts to infuse music with literature often go down. And quite frequently when I’m working on these things in the first or second draft, I can just see that it’s gotten too obscure, too long, too dense, too full of 75-cent words, and so often the editing takes that same direction of either throwing away or trying to make it something simpler than it’s straining to be, something that’s maybe striving less after significance. So I guess the answer is that it frequently fails. With “Alabama at Night” and “Never Come Home,” the scenarios are the inspiration, but as you say, you don’t have the room to elaborate. And some of the actual phrases from Agee were purloined for “Alabama at Night.” He used “scoured clay” and I lifted that, and I can’t remember off-hand which other phrases. There’s two or three phrases in there. So I feel free to do that. I don’t know why. I might get sued or something. I think Bob Dylan makes you feel free to do that, he seems to lift a lot.

You say that a writer your age has generally exhausted personal angles, but there do seem to be autobiographical elements in these songs.

That seems to me to be a biological, well, imperative is too strong a word, but I feel this increased interest and inner push toward remembering things from a long time ago. I came across this quotation from Arthur Schopenhauer, who said the first 40 years of your life are text, and the last 30 are commentary. So I definitely felt the little leap over that divide at some point over the past couple years, where the distant past started to become very interesting compared to anything that was presently developing. I think a lot of it is that things go away. When I visit the places where old things happened to me, where I was growing up, the land is there, but not as you remember it. And the people by and large aren’t there, or if they are, they look like they’re rotting away, and actual events may as well never have happened, because they exist only in this sort of mindscape, which is also biological and temporary, apparently. I guess the temporariness of it, and the evanescence of it, become kind of morbidly fascinating.

How has the intersection of literature and songwriting changed the way you edit yourself?

I’m not sure that I can remember how much I edited when I was 18 or 20. I would assume less. For me now, probably most – I don’t know, 50 or 60 percent of the editing – is just throwing away. So I’ll start a verse, get through a verse and chorus, it will seem kind of promising and then I’ll wail away at it for a week and find that it’s going nowhere and not interesting me anymore and pitch it. That’s more efficient than what I used to do. I tended to finish everything in the old days, and probably performed most of it at some point. So I just try to recognize earlier now when it’s going awry, or when it’s not achieving that magic, try to apply that high bar to it, and when it’s not producing sparks, just walk away from it, rather than try to refashion it.

Given all the songs you used to finish, is there a huge backlog of tunes?

Oh, sure, yeah. Really, it’s like 90 percent of what I write gets thrown away, and I don’t think that’s so unusual for writers. But I have noticed, looking back over the old records — I feel like I’m getting better at it, but I might not be, because the songs that still excite me to play now, there’s a couple from each record, and the trend line doesn’t go up as I get older. So I’m more conscious now when I do a record of really trying to look at it more skeptically and more severely so I don’t end up including a lot of stuff. Every time I make a record, I think, oh, these 12, these are the ones, and I’ve done as great a job as I can, and I’m proud of it. And then within five years, you look at it and say, ‘Oh, no, it was just those two that were really worthy,’ and that’s happened almost every record. It’s not a very inspiring procedure when you look at it from the long view.

Does your opinion change about which two are the worthy ones?

No, I just rediscover more that I don’t like.

What accounts for the increasing social consciousness of your songs?

A couple things over the last couple years have sort of provoked thought for me, and some of it’s been of the nature of people just saying random things that are memorable. One guy said in a bar, “Well, I went back to my hometown in Michigan, and how can these places go on if they don’t make anything? They used to make thing in my hometown, and now nobody knows how to make things anymore.” And I thought, well that’s a really good point. How do they? That immediately connected with what I see when I travel around, either playing in towns or just traveling through them, that they have service there for people passing through, and that’s where all the jobs seem to lie. And then they have closed factories.

So I think that thread in modern politics, too, whether it’s Sanders or Trump or Pat Buchanan or whomever, that sort of economic patriotism in modern politics, I think that’s not exactly a will-o’-the-wisp or bogeyman kind of idea of less-educated people. I think that’s a reality in a lot of America, and I think the recession, at least as far as my observations traveling around, after 2008, it got worse. It seems like a natural subject for somebody writing anything right now in America to dwell on.

And the connection with the Depression is a little bit provocative maybe, because things were so hard: horses dying in the streets, kids dying at age 4 and so on, the things that Agee witnessed. But that kind of thing is still happening, too. My sister-in-law works at a public school where she sees people who are too poor to have shoes on their feet in the wintertime, literally, which seems like a comic and antiquated form of poverty in America. I mean comic like I mean, so long ago that it doesn’t even seem plausible, that scenario, but that’s happening. It seems worth of comment, you know. To put it mildly.

You were known for a libertarian streak in the past. How much has that changed over the years?

That has changed. I still think that the libertarian philosophy is hopeful, and positive, and apart from practical politics, I think it’s a great philosophy, that the fewer controls on behavior the better, until the behavior impedes somebody else’s freedoms. But it gets harder to see how that can be positively turned into practical policy before addressing more important questions of do we go to war or do we not go to war, how do we set the top marginal tax rate or how do we reform the tax code or how do we help suffering people in our country or what do we do about the border. I’m not sure that the “let everybody do whatever they want” philosophy either has answers to those questions or might answer in the wrong direction. So I hate to say it, but currently I’m just not excited about any candidate. I really don’t like any of them.

It’s a very strange year. How closely are you following it? Are you a political junkie?

I thought I was, but then my oldest child really, really is informed as far as reading The New York Times and Real Clear Politics every day and watching “PBS Newshour” every night, so thanks to him, I stay more informed than I otherwise would be.

Libertarianism seems like it requires more personal responsibility than most people are willing to take on.

Yeah. It doesn’t require it, but it has a hopeful expectation of an educated, thoughtful population to some degree, or the society just devolves into reality-TV chaos. I feel I’m going to disappoint any of your readers who are interested in a musician’s thoughts on politics, unless you put me next to Drake or something. [Laughs]

For not liking any of the candidates, do you think you’ll vote?

I’ve voted Republican in the past, and I wanted to cast a vote against Trump in the primary, but on the other hand, my son was thinking of voting for him to hasten the destruction of the party. That’s an interesting strategic point of view, too. I anticipate voting for Hillary Clinton in November. I don’t mind voting for status quo, and she’s the status-quo candidate and the Democrats are now the center-right party. That doesn’t particularly bother me, except for the Wall Street connections. I’m pretty much convinced by what’s happened over the past 10 years that the Washington-Wall Street connection needs reform. The “Inside Job” documentary was very revealing. It doesn’t take all that much money to seduce some intellectually sophisticated people.

That’s kind of disappointing.

It is, but I guess it’s human nature. There’s probably a price at which I’d hang up the phone and start shilling for Trump. Maybe not $1 million, but $50 million.

Yeah, don’t do it for cheap.

Right. [Laughs]. Wow.

By Eric R. Danton

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