Robbie Fulks,
The TVD interview

Robbie Fulks’ 1996 debut album may have been titled Country Love Songs but the type of country music he was creating was miles away from contemporary genre fare. With songs about a drug overdose, the Pennsylvania pork mush known as scrapple and a forgotten 45 RPM record, it was a perfect country album for those listeners who felt alienated by the boot scootin’, bland pop that commercial country radio was offering (and still does, for the most part).

In the intervening decade and a half, Fulks has continued to write and record songs that challenge the listener as much as they entertain. Stylistically, he has explored rock, Bakersfield twang, smooth countrypolitan, and bluegrass all while keeping his unique songwriting voice intact.

Blessed with a high, lonesome tenor and razor-sharp fretboard skills, Fulks is a masterful entertainer who can hold an audience in rapt, pin-drop attention or make them convulse with laughter over an acerbic aside. His new album, Gone Away Backward, finds him in a quieter, more contemplative mood with sparse, mostly acoustic arrangements framing his songs. We spoke with Fulks prior to his recent set at storied Nashville bluegrass club The Station Inn, a room he hadn’t played in over twenty-five years.

I’ve been reading your blog and frequently laughing out loud. What made me chortle recently was your description of rock clubs, those “shoals of silliness,” particularly the venue where your son entered a battle of the bands. I would imagine such clubs are an occupational hazard for you.

Really, I don’t play them much anymore. I don’t know how many of them I do every year, but I would guess it’s no more than four. The rooms I tend to play are places with seats: community centers, “folk nazi” rooms, listening rooms, and places like that. Over the years, I winnowed it down and I know where I like to play. I don’t play a ton of new rooms, in other words.

Good rooms like The Station Inn?

Yes. I haven’t played there since the ‘80s but I have attended several shows there in the interim.

These days, it’s the lone hillbilly redneck structure in the midst of unrelenting gentrification. I hope it can hang on.

Yes, I’ve been hearing about that but I haven’t seen the gentrification yet. I assume it has happened in the years that I’ve been away from the club. I hope it doesn’t get zoned out of existence but if it does, perhaps they could move to East Nashville. As far as I’m concerned, you could always have a relocated, nicer Station Inn. I’m sure some people would grouse about it, romanticizing the older, smaller, dirtier place but they could always move. The Birchmere did it, Freight & Salvage did it.

I think it’s fair to say that you’ve had a love/hate relationship with Nashville in the past. What does it mean to you these days?

Really, I stopped thinking about it at all once I stopped working down there. The negative feelings I had were cached in “having” to be there. But I’ve loved it from the first time I went there to the time I moved there. Originally, it was the site of my hoped-for career developments in the early ‘90s. It’s just such a magic place. It’s kind of the only place where something like the music I’m really interested in holds sway and is a big industry. You can walk into a regular establishment and have a conversation with someone about A & B rhymes, stuff like that. I like the size of the city and the combination of Southern laid-backness with a little bit of Northern efficiency mixed in.

I even like the fact that Nashville’s concept of popular music is kind of backward. For example, when I used to work there, circa 1993, a woman at Major Bob, Garth Brook’s publishing company said to me, “You listen to up-to-date music. Have you heard this ‘cool guy’ Tom Waits?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard him for the last twenty years because that’s how long he’s been around.” I would run into that kind of thing all the time and it made me feel so in-the-know and young and up-to-date even though I was thirty and not really in the swing of current music. [Ed. note: Nashville is plenty hip now and we are all well-versed in Tom Waits’ ouerve. Just ask Jack White.]

You recently produced a fantastic tribute album for Johnny Paycheck. Did you find solace in the fact that although Nashville was the home of a lot of glitz and schmaltz, it was also the home of people like Paycheck and producer Aubrey Mayhew, guys who made really against-the-grain records?

Yes, obviously, I love that kind of music for sure but I also love a certain amount of commercial country music, here and there.

You recorded your new album, Gone Away Backward, with Steve Albini. You’ve worked with him previously, correct?

Yes, he’s worked on about half of my records. We recorded this one at his studio.

It’s a quiet, very intimate album. Was that intentional?

Yes, definitely. A lot of that came from not working with drums. To me, drums, above all, mark out in the first two or three bars of a tune what it is: this is the rhythmic framework, this is the style. Then you might hear other markers, like a Telecaster making a certain kind of bend, that takes you “here” and a mandolin making a certain kind of trill takes you “there.” So, not only did I want to make it quiet, I wanted to make it genre ambiguous so that the attention is focused on the story and the song.

So, free of all the tropes that would lead you subconsciously down certain paths.

I certainly find myself consuming music that way. I go into a music store, hear something and know what I’m supposed to be hearing within half a second, literally. It’s like, “We’ve done the research and we know you’re this kind of person who likes this kind of thing.” That sort of scientific exactness bleeds over into all your music listening, I think. To me, it’s more exciting to hear something that leaves enough space for you to fill it in more. It’s harder than ever to find that now because we’re all so educated and “market researched.” I wanted to provide that different listening experience for people.

Speaking of aiming outside the norm, how do you feel about vinyl? Is it a treasured configuration for you or is its resurgence more of a hipster trend?

I think it’s great to have vinyl for the sound and digital for the ease. As a consumer, I like both of those options. The rest of the formats can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.

Honestly, my money is not completely where my mouth is because I buy MP3 files nearly every day, CDs now and then, and vinyl not as often as I should. I was down in Salt Lake City a couple of months ago and that was the last time I bought records. They were all a special weight…what’s the fancy weight that allows them to charge twenty-five bucks a record (laughs)?

180 grams.

Yes, I bought 180gm editions of Mingus’ Blues and Roots, The Pistol Annies’ new one, P.J. Harvey’s latest and a couple of others. I guess buying vinyl is more of a luxury experience for me now, going out and paying more money for what you could buy for less through your computer and have it right away. I still attach a value to (vinyl), though.

How about when you were growing up and vinyl was the main configuration– did you collect it then?

Yes, I have all kinds of vinyl I bought as a kid sitting right in front of me here. I didn’t get rid of much of it. I still have maybe 800 records, not a “collector number,” but a substantial number. It’s hard for me to separate out what is objectively good about vinyl from the memory of being eight years old and getting excited about going to the record store or having these objects that I’ve carted from house to house all my life. The size of it permits artistic things to be done with the packaging. The intermission invoked when flipping the album over is valuable to the listening experience, I think. By contrast, so many CDs become a gray shaded mass after the thirtieth continuous minute.

With this being my first solo vinyl record, I was surprised that I had to cut stuff off in order to allow for the recommended eighteen minutes per side. I never knew that was the ideal length and I sent the mastering engineer a note, saying I had plenty of albums like, say, Abbey Road, which exceed that length per side and still sound great. He replied, “Well, yes, all that is true but, unfortunately, so is this.” I was never aware of things sounding worse on the records I owned which exceeded that length, but I don’t know, maybe they do.

Back to your blog, I have been very amused by your hilarious, ongoing criticism of Ryan Adams. Have you ever talked to him about any of this?

Not really. I’ve been in the same room with him and wind up leaving the room because I’m not a confrontational person. I’m a big man on paper, sitting here writing this stuff about him or talking to somebody about it on the phone but I don’t want to hang out with him.

The readers’ comments on your Adams-related posts are priceless. One Adams fan posted as “Robbie Sulks.”

Heh-heh, that’s cute. People get very angry when you say much less than what I said about Ryan. If you say anything negative about a band or artist, there are always crazy reactions. With my criticism of Ryan, there have been some death threats and stuff…


Yeah, it’s just a bunch of empty talk. I don’t think you can see them on my site but there might some comments like that on his site. There’s a lot of terrible music out there, obviously, but with him, the moment the cat was out of the bag when I said the first insulting thing, it sort of became an over-the-top game. I get to cram all the negative opinions I have about every other kind of music behind his name. He’s become the conduit for all my rage (much laughter)!

Robbie Fulks’ 2013 release, Gone Away Backward is on store shelves—on vinyl. Our August 2013 review is right here.

Robbie Fulks Official | Facebook

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