Clever, insightful and irreverent, Robbie Fulks is a founding father of the alt-country scene and an icon in roots music. One of the most gifted songwriters of his generation and deeply rooted in the musical traditions that built an entire genre, Fulks’s adventurous spirit and eclectic persona have defined a critically-acclaimed 30-year career that has included 15 solo albums, two Grammy® nominations, and a mountain of respect from some of the industry’s most revered personnel.
Fulks was born in York, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a half-dozen small towns in southeast Pennsylvania, the North Carolina Piedmont, and the Blue Ridge area of Virginia. He learned guitar from his dad, banjo from the Earl Scruggs instruction book, and songwriting by a trial-and-error process that is still going on. He attended Columbia College in New York City in 1980 and dropped out in 1982 to focus on the Greenwich Village songwriter scene. He moved to Chicago in the mid 1980s, joining Greg Cahill’s bluegrass outfit Special Consensus and teaching at the Old Town School of Folk Music. After a stint as a Music Row songwriter in Nashville in the 1990s, he embarked on a solo career with the Chicago-based indie Bloodshot Records and later, Geffen and Yep Roc, releasing a string of albums that helped to define the “alternative country” movement. His 2016 release UPLAND STORIES garnered Grammy® nominations for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song for the track “Alabama At Night.” While Fulks’s aversion to genre constraints and conventions has sometimes made him hard to pigeonhole, American country music, in the widest sense, is his home base — the country of Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Merle Haggard, Bobby Charles, and Mississippi John Hurt, for example. For the last ten years, he has focused in his writing and performing on homespun tales and acoustic instruments.
But while bluegrass music has always been a part of Fulks’s musical vision, his forthcoming release BLUEGRASS VACATION, releasing April 7th via Compass Records, is his first purely bluegrass endeavor. Paired with a cast that features some of the brightest stars of the genre including Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown, and Jerry Douglas, the result is one of the most remarkable bluegrass albums of the century.
BLUEGRASS VACATION opens with “One Glass of Whiskey.” Driven by Wes Corbett’s banjo, it is an upbeat track worthy of becoming a standard of the genre. Written shortly after his move to Los Angeles in 2019, the song is a “contradiction of the stereotypical view of LA,” ditching the common pre-conceived notion of palm trees, beaches, and traffic for Fulks’s more serene reality of porchside mornings, mountain vistas, and running horses. “Molly and the Old Man”, featuring Brennen Leigh’s harmony vocals and Alison Brown’s banjo, is a poignant homage to the power of traditional music to sustain us through tragedy and help us find common ground across generations. “Angels Carry Me” features Sierra Hull on mandolin and shines as an incredible display of Fulks’s songwriting capabilities, balancing three themes: rural loneliness, rock-star worship, and father-son tension. Fulks describes his halting progress in finishing the unusual song as “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” but says he “fell in love” with the end result, citing tool tips from the likes of Paul Simon on how to structure the multihued tale.
The autobiographical “Longhair Bluegrass” connects Fulks to the hippie bluegrass festival scene of the early 1970s that helped shape him and features newgrass pioneers Sam Bush (mandolin/harmony vocals) and John Cowan (vocals). “Let The Old Dog In” is a bluegrass barnburner featuring some top-flight picking from Russ Carson (banjo), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Shad Cobb (fiddle) and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin).
Fulks saves the last track for himself. Accompanying himself on clawhammer banjo, he ponders the allure that traditional music has always held for him. “Because of my earliest experiences, I’m stuck with this quirk – I just can’t get comfortable with the Rolling Stones or U2 or hip-hop the way I can get with banjo music.”
In the end, Fulks plants his flag firmly in the bluegrass tradition, a genre that built the stepping stones Fulks walks on today. He muses: “Electric guitars might give way to computers, as seems to be happening now, but the mountains will still be right there.” It’s abundantly clear that BLUEGRASS VACATION is more than just a musical dalliance for Fulks. He owns the music as much as it owns him and the listener is left hoping that this bluegrass vacation will end up becoming a staycation.