Robbie Fulks’ Folks Come from Imagination and Books
Part of the first-generation of singers and songwriters to appear on Bloodshot Records’ roster in the early ’90s, Robbie Fulks helped define what we now call alt-country. In 2013, after two decades of playing music, he reunited with the label for Gone Away Backward. Now, Fulks returns with Upland Stories, a collection of somber songs that expand the sound of the acoustic-oriented album that preceded it.
The songs directly draw from the literary wells of writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor and Javier Marias. Three new songs—“Alabama at Night,” “America Is A Hard Religion,” and “A Miracle” — were inspired by James Agee’s 1936 trip to Alabama that he documented in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The back band includes bassist Todd Phillips, violinist Jenny Scheinman and fiddler Shad Cobb. Flatlanders guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and drummer Alex Hall also play on the record along with multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz. Steve Albini (PJ Harvey, Bush) recorded the group’s live singing and playing on old German mics using a non-automated Neotek board. Fulks spoke to us via phone from his Chicago area home.
You started out on the Bloodshot Records. What was it like to be one of the early artists on the label?
It was like being a poor person in the midst of an obscure bunch of nothing. I recall it was that way. They had nothing but a wing and a prayer and a dream. My first record for them had a budget of $3000. That’s what they gave me. I spent a little more than that. I bitched and moaned about it but that frugality has kept them going over the years. They’re still here and so am I, so happy endings.
Was that term alt-country circulating?
I don’t know. They called it insurgent country. I think that was the term before alt-country. I think that was a few years later. The same thing has been there since the dawn of recorded history. I don’t know what they called Gram Parsons or Johnny Cash’s prison records. I think they just called it country probably.
How did Let Us Now Praise Famous Men become an inspiration for the songs on Upland Stories?
It was a play that I was working on with a playwright named Brian Yorkey. We thought about different ways to go at Agee and Walker Evans’ trip to Alabama and their doings among the local sharecropper families and the turning of hardship and suffering into an artwork. It seemed like fruitful subject matter. I wrote eight songs from various points of views and from different perspectives and musical styles to cast about in the dark and musicalize that experience somehow. Of the eight, three ended up on this record. I didn’t write them for the record, but I liked them as songs and felt I could deliver them without having to explain what they were.
What happened with the play?
It hasn’t been finished yet. Brian got called away on another project a few months ago and had to devote all his energy to that. We’re planning and hoping to return to it. It’s on the backburner now.
How are you so familiar with Agee’s book?
I can’t remember when I first came across it. It must have been high school. I knew I knew a lot about it before having read it. Once I sat down to read it after working on this play, it appalled me. I didn’t like the book. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Some of the writing was dynamite but a lot of it was really offputtingly abstruse and needed editing. A lot of it is angry at the reader for no particular reason. There was a lot going on under the surface besides just reporting on poor families. Then, I read the briefer version he submitted to Forbes magazine before it metastasized into crazy angry book. That, which was reprinted under the title Cotton Tenants, was really readable and informative and just seemed better to me in every way. It translated some of the outrage of the longer book. Maybe I’m reading literary history upside down but to me it was the better book. The longer book was the frustration with the magazine not accepting the piece. It was about sitting around and working on it for five years. Even the failure of the book seems minted into the writing of it. It sold 500 copies and just died. It seemed like he was ready for that to happen and almost welcoming it to happen.
How did it become famous?
In the ’60s, it was rediscovered by graduate students. It resurfaced. I don’t know the precise mechanisms of its resurfacing. It was totally organic. That’s when it got its reputation to the point that there was a documentary made about Agee in 1980 and President Carter was one of the talking heads on it. He talked how important the book was. It really made it to the top levels of society.
Do you think the book became famous because of the photographs?
To me, the photographs were the most distinguished and amazing feature of the book.
What inspired “Never Come Home”?
There were two stories. One by Chekov called “Peasants” and one by Flannery O’Connor called “The Enduring Chill.” They both deal with a guy who’s from the country and has gone to the city to make his name and who gets sick and comes home. It’s a great situation to be writing from. I was going to say there are a lot of possibilities but there’s only one, which is disaster. The family takes him in but there’s a strong element of “I told you so.” The guy sinks into illness and despair in the midst of country life. I love the situation and I just really stole it.
How do these stories resonate with you?
We always lived in small towns but we never lived on a working farm until I was 14. That farm was outside of a little town called Creedmoor which was outside of Durham in the middle of North Carolina. Whatever experience I had with the kind of people who show up in Flannery O’Connor stories would have come from that. Before that I lived in Charlottesville and little Dutch towns in Pennsylvania. The characters come more from imagination and from books. A couple of people from high school flip through. The true rustic types — I’ve had more association with those people from singing in country bars than from when I was ten.
How’d you wind up in Chicago?
I got this girl pregnant and her parents lived here. We came out here to raise the kid. We fell apart and I met another girl and got her pregnant as well. The family just took root here.
You like it?
Yes and no. I don’t like the weather and I often wish there were more hardcore country players at my fingertips. Often, when I tour, I have to fly in guys from other places. I wish there were more artistically like-minded people here. It’s also an advantage. I have more independence of mind. It’s good for me to not be unduly influenced by other writers and musicians.
What did Steve Albini bring to the recording process?
I’ve been working with Steve since 1986. Each of us knows what’s going to happen. His guidance of the music is pretty minimal during tracking. During mixing, less so. And it’s collaborative. He has a strong skill set to offer. He doesn’t press his argument past the point where you feel like you have to weep or yell at him or do anything unusual like that. He’s very reasonable.
Did you use vintage gear?
That’s his thing. He has a board called Neotek and among his affinity for old-fashioned techniques is his dislike of automation in mixing. When you hear an Albini mix, you’re hearing two hands on a board in real time making a modest series of moves. If it’s more than two or three times, he’ll make a note. It’s in contrast-diction to any other mix that you hear nowadays, which is automated. You set the move in the computer and the computer makes. That’s easier and you can do tons more. With Steve’s technique, you get a much more stark snapshot of the performance. There’s a lot less between the musician and the listener. I think that’s where he contributes. He contributes somewhat during tracking. I record onto a computer and he brings in an assistant and we record onto Pro Tools. We make edits and dump them onto tape. That’s when his hands come into play. Before that, he’s listening and making comments.
Tell me about the band.
It’s two from the West Coast, Jenny Scheinman and Wayne Horvitz, and two guys from Chicago. Fats, Todd and Shad are from Nashville. That’s everybody. It was a guess as to how the ensemble would sound, but it really paid off. There are only a couple of places where everyone is playing together. Generally, it’s subsets. Everyone was song-focused and not self-focused. They used their ears to create a unified ensemble sound and that’s what I was hoping in my heart of hearts for.
How about live?
I travel with both a trio and a quintet, which is steel guitar, rhythm section and violin and me. It’s only three quarters as lavish as the most lavish songs on the record but it’s a good representation of the record.
Critics have described this album as “philosophically reflective.” Is that accurate?
I think so. I’m taking a cue in philosophical openness from some writers I’ve read like Javier Marias, who is liberated to wander around on the page. There are a handful of writers who have encouraged me to throw off the shackles. I think that’s another way of phrasing what you call reflectiveness. It’s positive aimlessness which allows the characters to move in different directions than expected and it also permits your mind to come up with phrases or thoughts that you might not have come up with if you stuck to a more rigid framework.
I feel like the songs still have narratives.
“Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” seems to begin in a place and the ending feels kind of like an ending and it feels like a progression but I couldn’t say why. It moves around in time and different characters come and go. It ends with dour thoughts but it doesn’t follow any typical idea of a song progression. I don’t know how to account for it.
Do you think you’ll adopt this style next time?
I like it. It feels natural to my age. As a 25-year-old writer and looking 30 years into the future, it would have been hard for me to visualize what I would be writing about. I was writing angry songs about women and excited songs about music and songs about falling in and out of love and doing drugs or whatever. It’s all material that would be absurd for a 55-year-old guy, which I’ll be soon. To be middle aged in writing, it could be challenging to find those themes but I think I’m finding them in the buried past and in ideas from books and from writing accurately what I feel like biologically and metabolically right now, which isn’t a common subject in songs.