Robbie Fulks taking Grammy nominations in stride

SHARE Robbie Fulks taking Grammy nominations in stride

Singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks is photographed in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2017. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

It’s been a long time coming.

For Chicago singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, it’s taken nearly a quarter-century for the music industry to officially recognize the work that has made him a household name to fans of Americana/roots/bluegrass/country and folk. And a few more genres that can lay claim to his lush tenor and soulful guitar strains.


This year Fulks has been nominated for two Grammys: best folk album, “Upland Stories,” and best American roots song, “Alabama at Night,” the first single off the disc. The nominations are the first for him and the Chicago-based indie Bloodshot Records label, which boasts a bevy of seasoned artists including Ryan Adams, Alejandro Escovedo, John Langford, Neko Case and Lydia Loveless.

OK, it took a mindset change on Fulks’ part, too.

“I just never pursued it before [Grammy consideration is based on entries submitted by Recording Academy members or registered media companies]. This is truly the first time I went after it,” Fulks said during a recent interview, when asked about receiving the nominations. “A neighbor of mine who’s won two Emmys put it into perspective for me. He pursued it nine times, got nominated six times and won two. So I don’t expect to win my first time out. And that’s OK. I’ll definitely pursue it again.”

Fulks is up against some stiff competition in both categories, with nominees that include Rihannon Giddens, Jack White, Judy Collins and Vince Gill, among others. But “Upland Stories” is no lightweight; Rolling Stone place it at the No. 15 spot on its list of the 40 Best Country Music Albums of 2016, alongside the likes of Gill, Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn and Keith Urban. The album is all about reflecting on life’s lessons, good and bad, and all told through Fulks’ signature brand of straightforward, heartfelt storytelling.

Fulks, who makes his home in Chicago’s northern suburbs, has been a familiar face on Chicago’s music scene since his 1996 debut album, “Country Love Songs” (engineered by longtime collaborator Steve Albini).  He’s been a constant presence at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, and at the Hideout in Wicker Park, where on any given Monday night, you’ll find Fulks in residence. (His last “Mondays with Robbie” shows are slated for Feb. 20 and Feb. 27.) His fan base quickly spread across the country as subsequent albums and regional concert gigs attested to his signature brand of songwriting.

Q. What was it about “Upland Stories” that made you decide to pursue the Grammy?

A. My wife and I talked about it before I did it. I’ve done 11 other records and you get to a point where you’re like, ‘Can I do another one maybe a little bit better?’ But you get to the point of, well, what do I want out of another record? And so we thought we’d like to get a Grammy nomination and such-and-such sales. We didn’t get the such-and-such sales, but we got the nomination. You like to have a sense of progress in your career, I guess.

Q. This is a very personal album on so many levels for you. You once said that you “have a hard time writing songs as a middle-aged man because you no longer like anything very much.” Can you explain what you meant?

A. [Laughs] The kernel of truth there is that you have to find new subjects to write about if you’re a distinctly older person than you were. I’m definitely middle-age now and I don’t think it’s good to sing about falling in love or driving fast cars. It’s not gonna work for me, when I’m the guy delivering it on stage. With that in mind. there are three things that were in play for me on the last two records. One is literature that excited me or inspires me and the other is personal experiences — looking back. And the third is socio-political, just thinking about how people live, the daily headlines.

Q. Out of all that, what has touched you the most in your musical journey, across all the slices of Americana about which you write and sing?

A. That’s one to think about. I guess one thing would be the non-heroic aspect of American life; people getting up every day and doing their jobs competently and raising their kids. People who do all of those things in good faith and with a lot of energy is a striking thing to witness. I know for me, the hardest job I’ve ever done is being a dad. And the childhood memories aspect of life deepens as you get older. It doesn’t touch me so much as it grips me, in a way.

Q. It’s so hard to pigeonhole Robbie Fulks the artist because your music crosses over into so many genres — roots, Americana, bluegrass, country. You did an album of Michael Jackson covers! 

A. Partly that’s a function of unpopularity [Laughs]. I never would have designed it for me to be a below-the-radar kind of guy. But there’s a definite advantage to that because nobody ever put the pressure on me to do music this way or that way. So I’ve been free to follow my interests wherever they lead me. I’m very anti-orders. I don’t like to be governed by styles or conventions.

Q. And Bloodshot gave you that freedom?

A. Lately, yes. Not at first though. It was just that they had a more rigid brand when they emerged 25 years ago. And I adhered to that. I was just happy anybody would put out my records. And obviously I love that old-style country music I was doing for them. At this point I’ve established myself enough to have the prerogative to swing my arms a little wider and widen the brand a little, too.

Q. You are a self-taught musician. You taught at Old Town School of Folk Music for a while. What did you learn about yourself from that experience?

A. I learned I didn’t know much about music. I don’t know how to read music. I read chord charts, and that’s about it. Not knowing how to read real music is a definite handicap, so I figured out goofy ways to communicate what I want. It wasn’t a great way to teach. I found I had a lot of opinions about music, and was less interested in hearing what my students were interested in. So I found out some negative things about me in the process. I don’t know if you can teach music, in particular. People can learn it, but I’m still not sure you can teach it.

Q. You’ve always been able to tell stories through your music. You’ve said you can get inspiration from literature or the headlines of the day, or even lines in the Bible. What are some elements of a good story?

A. It can’t just be about conflict. Maybe there’s a resolution that doesn’t too clearly or too neatly resolve all the things that are put into play. Also, characters who are behaving in believable ways, where they’re not figures on a chessboard. … Sometimes I’ll steal something someone has said to me in a bar [for a song lyric or inspiration], or something my kids say or a friend says. I’ll borrow from all of that. If it’s philosophically interesting.

Q. You’re about to close out your Monday night residency at the Hideout. What did you learn about yourself from that experience?

A. It’s been great. Somebody reminded me that I stopped doing weddings almost the same time I started doing the Hideout. I was getting weary of the wedding thing; it was a little like being on a treadmill. But like the weddings, at the Hideout I got to do covers, do songs other people wrote. I love singing other people’s music. After seven years, though, it’s starting to feel like that [treadmill] again. It’s time to cross the bridge and move on. But I won’t leave covers behind altogether. I did a Hideout show once where I covered an album of Dylan’s called “Street-Legal,” where I did complete reinterpretations of the songs, much like I did for the Michael Jackson album. So I’m actually doing a record of those songs. I’m about halfway through.

Q. Will you have a speech prepared for the Grammys, just in case? And how has the nomination changed things in general in your life? Does it on some level validate your work?

A. No speech. I’ll have to make it up. I’m counting on not winning, so no need to write one. But I’m gonna keep at it. Maybe I’ll write a speech for the sixth time I’m nominated. I guess it’s a little validating. Everybody’s nicer to me all of a sudden. Maybe I’m a little more popular now. [Laughing] The neighbors on my block have always been very nice. Now it’s like, ‘What’s he doing in there playing that banjo all the time? Maybe we should pay attention.'”

The Grammy Awards ceremony will be televised at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 on CBS.

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