The son of a bluegrass-loving academic, Robbie Fulks paid his dues at the famed folk clubs of New York City and Chicago. “I think the folk thing is so much a part of my hard drive that I’m always going to be comfortable hanging out with folkies no matter what,” he told CMT News. But a gig with the Chicago bluegrass band Special Consensus steered him in the direction of songwriting, and in the late 1990s he emerged as the face of Chicago’s Bloodshot label and its “insurgent country” music that had a bit of punk in its attitude, if not in its sound. With truculent, often funny songs like “I Told Her Lies” and the notorious anti-Nashville anthem “F*** This Town,” Fulks rode the first big wave of what’s become known as alternative country.
His career since then has been experimental, with turns toward rock, classic country, and even an album of Michael Jackson covers. What he’s lost in consistent career trajectory he’s gained in creative freedom, and he’s acquired a cadre of fans who will turn out for his small-club appearances in Chicago and buy anything he puts out. With his last two releases, 2013’s Gone Away Backward and the new Upland Stories, Fulks has returned to his folk and bluegrass roots and begun swinging for the fences as a songwriter.
Upland Stories, which Fulks brings hot off the presses to the Ark on April 12, is an impressive piece of work. Three of its songs are based on the 1936 journey to Alabama made by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans that resulted in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; the remarkable “Alabama at Night” speaks from the journalists’ perspective as they convince the sharecroppers around them that “we were not there to talk; we were only there to see.”
Elsewhere Fulks tells detailed stories of distinctive people in southern Appalachia. “I’ve always been wary of people who try to combine novelistic techniques and pop songwriting techniques because I think it’s an invitation to charlatanry,” Fulks told CMT News in 2003. But he’s changed his mind, and he crosses this high wire successfully in, among other songs, “Never Come Home,” about a man returning home to die among people who don’t much like him. “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man” shows Fulks’s sense of humor very much intact, and this songwriter’s long string of worthwhile stuff, matched perhaps only by Fred Eaglesmith, promises a strong weeknight concert at the Ark.