Chicago-based alternative bluegrass folk singer and songwriter, Robbie Fulks returns to York, his native hometown for the first time since he was a child to take the stage alongside the Dupont Brothers on Thursday, Oct. 20 at Kable House.
In Fulks' trek on tour supporting 2016's "Upland Stories," he had a chance to share details about his musical roots and what inspired his latest album.
As a child, Robbie was born in York, Pennsylvania, and shortly after began moving frequently due to his father’s job. Stops on the trail included Mount Joy, Mountville and Waynesboro, all in Pennsylvania, Charlottesville, Virginia, Wake Forest, and, finally, Creedmoor, North Carolina. In the midst of all the moving, Fulks says music was a constant. His mother and father collected records and often played music on the weekends in the early '70s, which ultimately gave Robbie the desire to perform and write music at the age of fifteen.
“My family always listened to a lot of folk and bluegrass music. Growing up, I would hear this guy come on the radio station in Lancaster on Saturday mornings called ‘The Sheriff’,” said Fulks. “He would dress up like a sheriff and present bluegrass acts, like whoever happened to be passing through town like Jim and Jesse and Del McCoury, and I always loved listening to the music. We always had instruments lying around the house, so I started picking up the banjo to play when I was about seven years old. When I was in school, my music teacher noticed I was taking interest in playing the banjo, so she gave me the opportunity to play in front of the class and talent shows, which kind of got me hooked.”
Fulks was accepted into Columbia University at 17 years old, pursuing a degree in English. But as he spent more time hanging out in Greenwich Village playing his music at local clubs, he quit college after 3 years to perform full time.
In the ensuing years, Fulks has put together a career marked by success and highly original, cross-genre, live shows. He's most comfortable on a stage, and Fulks says his choice of career wasn't really a decision, as much as it was an inescapable conclusion he came to.
“Over the course of my time in New York, I stopped thinking I would be a journalist or that I would be in movies or all these other vague things I thought I might do for a living,” explained Fulks. “I knew that music was what I loved and that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
It wasn’t until 1996, at age 33, that Fulks got his big break and started working on his first record, "Country Love Songs," with the independent label, Bloodshot Records, based in Chicago, Illinois. The label, which specialized in punk-folk music, took a chance with Fulks unique sound and set for him to record alongside producer, Steve Albini.
“It was a pretty narrow bottleneck those days,” said Fulks. “It’s never been quite clear what my category is, and those were the challenges for me.”
Now, in 2016, Fulks is celebrating his latest album, ‘Upland Stories’, a personally reflective collection that highlights his evolution toward a more folk and bluegrass-fueled sound since ‘Country Love Songs’ first hit the streets.
Many of Fulks songs on ‘Upland Stories’ were inspired by ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, James Agee’s book about the plight of Depression-era sharecroppers from the 1940s. The album, which released on April 1, also draws from many other literary writers like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Conner, Mary Lavin and Javiar Marias, and more.
“The general idea of it came from partly the depressing state of our country,” said Fulks. “Without sounding like a pro-Trump guy, which I am not really, but like he said in a recent debate, when you drive around the interior of Pennsylvania, or Ohio, or Michigan, or fifteen other places in America, it just looks hallowed out. A lot of people don’t have jobs, some are on drugs, and there’s not a whole lot going on—there’s a lot of depressing indicators. These stories I wrote about are set in Kentucky, The Carolina’s and the upland south. They involve some negative observations about the life of poor people in America, and not negative, but sort of realistic and true as to what is actually happening. There’s a little bit of hopefulness here and there, but there are also a lot of hard times and sorrow more than hopefulness.”
Fulks says his inspiration for his most recent album comes from driving through towns for all his shows when he tours.
“The observations are a bit nebulous because I just drive through a town, play there, and move on, so I really get to see fleeting things,” said Fulks. “I’m not writing anything like ‘Oh this is the story of Dale and this is the block where it happened,' or anything like that. It’s really just about what I see, along with the usual inspirations of what I read and music I listen to.”
So what gets his creative flow really going? Fulks says he likes to write his songs in hotel room solo, where the blank walls and silence truly awaken his creative senses.
“I like to write in a hotel room, alone,” said Fulks. “If I am off and at home for a week, not on the road, I‘ll typically rent a hotel room for a couple of days just to work on music and deprive my senses with nothing to distract me. I’ll typically use my son’s science notebook to write my music and I have been using for over a year and it has 200 pages in it. Once I am done with this one, I will be using another one of his old notebooks from his elementary school days. I like to keep them and use the pages to write my music.”
Fulks says he doesn’t write too much from his unconscious, but every once in a while, he wakes up with a melody or lyric in his head that he has to jot down.
“I had a dream about finding an unknown Miles Davis record a few months ago, and in the dream the title was something like ‘Yellow’, and I put on the record player,” said Fulks. “When I woke up, I could only remember just a few phrases from the song, so that was totally exciting when that sort of thing happens because it’s pretty rare.”
To Robbie Fulks, the best part of being an artist is continuing to learn and perfect the craft of playing instruments and improving vocal skills.
“I love that music is communicative,” said Fulks. “It’s not really a finished act until people hear it, and then hopefully, applaud it and like it.”
IF YOU GO:
What: Robbie Fulks with the DuPont Brothers at Kable House
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20 (doors open at 7 p.m.)
Where: Kable House, 34 W. Philadelphia St., York
Cost: $15, visit kablehousepresent.com for more information
Upcoming shows at Kable House:
Who: AARON LEE TASJAN AND BRIAN WRIGHT (DUO)
When: Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016
Who: ARTIST TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON
When: Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016
Who: LEE HARVEY OSMOND
When: Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017
Find more details about any of these show at kablehousepresents.com