“They’re pretty whispery, reflective affairs,” Robbie Fulks says of the songs found on his most recent effort, Upland Stories. The quiet subject matter of the tunes is enhanced by a subtle, intimate performance across pieces such as “Alabama at Night”, “Sarah Jane”, and “Sweet As Sweet Comes”. Typical for Fulks there are nods of light and humor that sneak their way in but it is one of his most consistently great and cohesive records to date, no small feat when one considers past output such as Georgia Hard and Couples in Trouble.
He worked on the record with fellow Chicagoan and longtime collaborator Steve Albini who, he says, is remarkably adept at capturing quieter sounds. “We’ve been doing records together for 30 years now and I think we know each other really well and know what to expect of each other. In addition to the really impressive skill set that he has with audio engineering is that experience,” Fulks offers. “He does have this surprising aptitude with quiet music which I realized fairly early on. We did a song on the Country Love Songs record called ‘Barely Human’ where he got a great steel sound and a nice large but intimate sound out of three instruments and the voice.” Fulks also points to his friend’s work with Nina Nastasia. “I think her records have that same intimate quality, they can sound large and have the room sound in there but still have that connection. I love his trademark.”
He admits that he himself has “never been a gear” guy and reports having trouble remembering the name of his guitar mic. “I have to think really hard so I don’t reverse the model number,” he says. “But I have gotten better over the years at understanding what to accomplish from tracking. I think that’s most of it, you want to be enthused by the sound of your own playback. I’d never aspire to be my own engineer, though. I make it a point not to communicate in quasi-technical language. I say, ‘Can we make this rounder? Can we do something that creates a shriller effect on the voice? Can we flatten it out so that these particular frequencies don’t poke as much?’ I don’t try to speak more technically that I’m able to and that usually works for me.”
Fulks has come to trust his intuition not only in the studio but with songwriting itself. Though he writes often he says he also has an awareness of when new material will begin shaping an album. “I’ll feel it rounding the corner,” he says. “In this case I wanted to make it continuous with the last one, Gone Away Backward, because I really like it. I ended up with something that wasn’t as similar to that as I’d hoped or planned because there’s electric guitar on this and steel guitar whereas Gone Away didn’t have that. But I think I came up with something that’s fairly continuous. I just sort of took stock of the songs I had that I already liked and then forged forward with the idea that I wanted something quieter.”
There were some holes to fill. He wanted lighter fare on the record, so worked up “Katy Kay”, then balanced that with the deeper, more personal “Needed”. That tune has become something of a new career high for the songwriter, a track that touches on a basic human desire: wanting to be loved but, and knowing that one is loved. Or, perhaps fearing that one isn’t. It is a song that is flawless not just in its writing but in its execution. Fulks says it was inspired in part by songs such as Tim McGraw’s “Red Rag Top”, which shines light on a young woman who has an abortion.
“I love those kitchen sink type songs that are very hard hitting and no other style of music does that as well as country,” he says. “So I had that in the back of my head as I was working on that one. But the other thing is that you don’t know exactly where the song is going to go at the outset. The first verse happens: it seems to be a guy remembering back to his youth which could be who knows what age. It could be two years back or 50 years back. Then it gradually comes into focus as to who he is and how old he is. It’s pretty close to the end of the song when it becomes clear that he’s actually addressing another person, not the listener, but his child. And that’s when it’s meant to drive the dagger in.”
In some ways it harkens back to Fulks’ time writing music for publishers in Nashville. “They’d just come out the Integrity Scare of the late ’80s with guys like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis and Foster & Lloyd were inking big corporate deals and getting airplay,” he recalls. “And I loved all of those guys. I really enjoyed listening to their songs and soaking it in.” He says he was also enamored of Reba McEntire and other pop-edged acts. “I just loved it all and I knew the history of it. I knew old country music and the names of all the writers and publishers. I was way into it and ready to leap out of the starting gate.”
But, he adds, “It didn’t really work out for me like that. I did get stronger as a writer and made a lot of good connections and was actually able to make a living as a country songwriter for a couple of years. It was a lot better than office temping, you know?”
Much of his career has been spent issuing records for Chicago’s Bloodshot imprint, a place he seems to feel happy at if sometimes disconnected from the so-called insurgent country that has populated the label’s roster over the decades. From the start he’s set himself apart with a lyrical and harmonic sophistication. “There are writers who can do a lot with simple chords,” he says, “but that’s a rare talent to be interesting with. But even guys like Billy Joe Shaver with a song like ‘The Good Ol’ U.S.A.’, or ‘Georgia On a Fast Train’, wouldn’t work if the music weren’t great. To me, the music is primary and the lyrics sometimes get in the way. So the trick is to make them an adequate, unobtrusive overlay on the music.”
Those overlays on Upland Stories rely on references to the south, both as a geographical location but also as a mindset. Fulks’ identity is equal parts southern and northern: He was born in Pennsylvania but lived between there, North Carolina and Virginia throughout his formative years. But he’s spent most of his adult life in the north, including attending college in New York City. “I refer back to the south a lot because when I lived there I was impressionable and those are the most amazing years of your life,” he says. “At a certain point I realized that I was writing about the southeast and setting songs down there continually: Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia. I thought, ‘Well, I gotta stop this. It’s becoming ridiculous. It’s becoming a crutch.’ Then I thought, ‘I’ll do one more record that’s all that.’ That was the genesis of Upland Stories.
Fulks says that his southern youth helped shape him but not in ways he could always articulate. “It got clearer as I got older that I was from a time and place which, when I was there and in the middle of it, I didn’t necessarily feel connected to. In fact, for years, like when I went to college and after I tried to push that aside, that part of my personality. I just tried to be in the swim more. Whatever was popular in 1980: The Police and The Pretenders, all that, that’s what I tried to identify with and understand and swim with. Twenty years later, I started to say, ‘No, what I was doing when I was 10, copying Doc Watson and John Hartford and getting into Ricky Skaggs and Delbert McClinton and some of that was the way to go.’ I started to think embracing that might really give my work more value. It’s deeper in me because it me when I was five and 10 rather than 20 and 25.”
He adds that growing up in that era of punk and new wave and then seeing the music he’d grown up on come out a filter of the so-called insurgent music was a bit strange. “I’ve never really identified with the noisier, more zealous side of the alternative country crowd. I’ve always come at it from a gentler place and a more chops-driven place I would say. But I was never ashamed of liking what my parents liked when I was a kid. You know it’s funny because my wife and her friend were talking with me in the car not that long ago and they said, ‘Who did you see when you were a kid?’ My wife said she’d seen Frankie Goes to Hollywood twice and her friend said she’d seen The Smiths. I recognize those names and have an idea what the sound is but when they turned to me and asked the same question, I said, ‘I saw the Osborne Brothers three times or four times, the Seldom Scene play several times, the New Grass Revival all that I could.’ They looked at me like I was speaking in Esperanto. At times like that I realize how different my experience is from a typical mainstream experience.”
With touring behind Upland Stories likely to keep Fulks on the road for a while he hasn’t quite started thinking about his next record but he says he has ideas about two he’d love to make but probably never will. “I’d love to take on the Christmas record. And I’d love to take on a comedy record in the style of Firesign Theatre, National Lampoon, or Albert Brooks. Those had integrated music elements and if the situation ever arose I think it might be fun as hell to try my hand at that. In the meantime, I think I’ve stumbled upon something that’s been working and that’s what I’m going to stick with for the time being.”