Mar 30, 2016

Robbie Fulks Channels Agee from Down South to the Upland

Fulks Channels Agee from Down South to the Upland

By Kevin Broughton

Eighty years ago, Knoxville-born and Harvard-educated journalist James Agee headed South on assignment for Fortune magazine. His time spent with three white, West Alabama sharecropping families evolved from a long form magazine story to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an early touchstone of a forthcoming wave of “new” or “literary” journalism, which would feature names like Capote and Plimpton and Talese.   

Agee – a film critic by trade, mostly – brought to light the balefully stark conditions under which the lowly whites toiled. You hear – and can see, really -- their plaintive, hardscrabble lives in Robbie Fulks’ Upland Stories, released on Bloodshot Records on April 1.

If you’re familiar with Fulks’ body of work, you appreciate the release date’s ironic wink. If not, well, there’s really not enough space to get you fully up to speed. It’s complicated. Comparisons to other artists are the mediocre music writer’s crutch and I ain’t scared to lean on them. Hell, I’ve got a closet full and not a single one works here.

Pennsylvania born, Carolina-and-Virginia raised, now affixed to Chicago. A bracing tenor who’ll make your hair stand on end, but knows less is often more. Guitar virtuosity that’s under-heralded and would enjoy Buddy Miller status if the latter confined himself to a mic’d up acoustic 80 percent of the time. Then there’s the songwriting.

What if Frank Zappa had been born un-swarthy and in the Blue Ridge? Hmmm. We’re getting somewhere, comparison-wise.  Fulks has a deep reverence for traditional country, bluegrass and roots music; appropriate, since he has few peers as a practitioner of the craft. And yet on the same album, you could hear a song that’s so country it’s busting on country. It’s a pity so few people get the joke, because much of Fulks’ appeal is in his wit. It’s mainly how he made his bones early on, and never too far from the surface. 

On Upland Stories, though, you step deeply into the melancholy – a word that cropped up a time or three – and it’s not wit, but passion and empathy that hold you. Do yourself a favor and listen to the opening cut, “Alabama at Night,” right here, before reading any further. It’ll set the mood. You’re with Agee.

We caught up with Mr. Fulks and talked American literature, Year Zero on Austin City Limits, Feuding with Mojo Nixon, and getting Called By Saul.

Your last album, Gone Away Backward took on some topical issues like economic hardship and alienation. In Upland Stories, you take it one step further, with James Agee as your jumping off point. Did you do these two records with thematic continuity in mind?

Yeah, I wanted to do a record that came out of the previous one, because I liked the way Gone Away Backward sounded, and was pleased with the reception of it. And I enjoyed traveling around and supporting it with the players on it. This one came out sounding a little less like the last one than I wanted it to, and ended up with electric guitar and organ and various other things on it. But I think the nature of it does somehow connect it to the last album, and that’s because of the thematic material.

The Agee angle came out of a show I was working on – it’s now on hold -- with a playwright, and we were looking at subjects, and he suggested I think of something that really lifted my skirts. So we were talking about home, and the South, and places you can’t return to anymore and lost, old things. I just thought of James Agee, and took a dive into Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Other than the obvious, why Agee?  He was a little sheepish about his own status when he wrote, and wrote about, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. How do you think, if at all, being a Southern white child of relative privilege enhanced or encumbered his ability to write that book?

I don’t think of him as privileged, other than the fact that he was a Harvard guy. But I think he had this melancholy – if not depressed – streak, and I may presume to say that once he was up north, he was an outsider. Where he came from really came to occupy a haunted little sector of his brain. And there’s just a melancholy, aggrieved air in his writing, whether he’s writing about film or poor people…a lot of it’s infused with sentiment and depth of feeling.

Did you write all of these songs with this topical/thematic album in mind, or were there some outliers that you dropped in as well?  I ask because  “Needed” is obviously personal, and autobiographical stuff isn’t typical of your catalog, unless I’m missing a lot.

(Chuckles) You’re actually remarkably close to my frame of mind when I put that song [into the album] because I had a group of ten or 12 songs at a certain point, and I tried to look at them and envision what was missing. And it seemed like a personal ballad was missing for some reason, like the album was a little too immured in social issues, and in narratives in points of view other than my own. So it seemed like it needed a hard shot of something strongly personal, and I deliberately wrote that one to fill that slot. I tried to distance it from myself a little, in that I had the singer talking to his daughter; I have three sons. Other than that, it’s pretty close to stuff that’s happened to me and a trillion other people.

Are there other characters on the album based on people you know or knew?

Well, “Sarah Jane” is kinda – I don’t want to embarrass her – but there was a girl I went to high school with…well, in fact I named her on the record, her name was Judson. Anyway she and I had a memorable encounter, it was after high school, and we realized we could’ve dated.  That song is about all the things you’ve missed out on, and many roads not taken, and sort of drifting through melancholy and middle age and letting all that stuff get to you.

You spent some time in the early and mid 90s as the “hired help,” writing songs for the likes of Tim McGraw & Ty Herndon. Were tunes like “The Scrapple Song” and “Papa Was a Steel-headed Man” your way of saying “I’m free” after that stint?

When I was working for that company, I wrote a quite lot of songs that were out of my personality, and which were songs for them to pitch. Some of them were songs that made my skin crawl to be singing them. So I would sometimes write songs just to blow off steam, which how I came to write “Fuck This Town” and “God Isn’t Real,” as a way of sort of countering the other type of dross that I was coming up with.

And then some of them were in the middle, like “Tears Only Run One Way,” was written from the heart but then I thought “Well, this could conceivably be pitched to somebody or another.” So some were in between, but they ended up becoming my first album, Country Love Songs.

“Tears Only Run One Way” could be a Buck Owens song. And there’s a Buck Owens-themed song on that album.

Buck’s steel player was on that record.

Do you come across many people whose first exposure to you was your Austin City Limits appearance around ’97 or ’98?

Oh, yes. Is that what it was for you? How old are you?

Old. About three years younger than you.

I’ve definitely heard that. For the people that came along in Year Zero for me, so to speak, around 1996-97, it’s hard to displace that from what they like about me. And yes, it makes me yearn for more prime time TV. It makes me wish I could go back and do that again, with the better things I’m doing now.

You’ve written songs about bludgeoning pigs with hammers and reducing them to a gelatinous pie; starlets who kill themselves with pills; crushing on Susanna Hoffs; a truly disturbing “children’s song” about a creepy magician; and a Michael Jackson tribute album. Ever ask yourself where all this comes from?

Some of it comes from assignments. The kids’ record [Bloodshot] asked me to contribute to; the Michael Jackson thing, believe it or not, came from an assignment. It was his birthday and the Cultural Center in Chicago was putting on a tribute and I re-worked some of his songs. I found that I enjoyed doing it, so it emerged from that.  Some of it’s fortuitous, if that’s the right word.

Some of the hard right turns I’ve taken on the discography, I might have second thoughts if I could do it again, but I think the great benefit to being “unpopular” and being kind of a cult figure is that I don’t have people looking over my shoulder saying “don’t do this, don’t do that.” So there’s absolute freedom to do what I do, and I really need to exploit it.

You mentioned working with a playwright on a musical. Have you ever tried your hand at prose? A short story or screenplay, maybe? I think you’ve got a movie in you.

Well, that’s nice of you. I don’t think I could do that, so I’ll disagree with you there. I have written a story that I’m not really proud of that came out in a collection of country artists…I think it was called “A Guitar and a Pen,” basically people who have no business writing prose. I wrote something in “An Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.” A few things for the Journal of Country music.

I see from Twitter that I missed you & Mojo Nixon on Sirius XM from Austin a couple weeks back, and I’m pissed. Care to give a summation?

It was surprisingly serious. Mojo gave his version of something he thought I meant when I said something rude about him, in an interview somewhere along the line that I’ve long forgotten. So we sort of interpreted what I meant by my supposed insult to his craft. I would have rather screamed obscenities at one another, because that would have made for better radio.

I certainly bear him no ill will. Whatever I said about him was just trying to explain that I do more than novelty songs. And I used his name as an example.

“At least I’m not Mojo Nixon?”

Well, I don’t think there was an “at least” in it, but yeah.

Now I’m gonna have to go back an look at some of the videos he did when I was in college.

Well, he can take it. The main thing about him -- and I love his show. In fact I don’t love the music on his show, but I love his part of it. So sometimes I’ll have it on in the car and turn it up when he’s talking, then turn it back down again.

You know, they play you on that station every now and again.

Well, I’ll turn it up for that. Then back down for Ryan Adams or whatever.

Back to Upland Stories. “America is a Hard Religion” sounds like Appalachia, but I think you’re making a point that’s more universal. What can you tell me about point of view and/or characters in that song?

 I’d like to tell you something really specific and revealing about it, but it’s a little bit of a nebulous tune. It’s one that I wrote for the musical about James Agee, so I didn’t have a hard grasp of the point of view. It’s meant to be an old-timey song that’s shockingly realistic about what poor people in America endure, like sending kids off to war. And doing backbreaking work, and being part of this great historical social contract, while living among unimaginably wealthy people who live like kings. So it’s a point of view from a demographic group, rather than a single person.

“Never Come Home” is kind of a downer. What’s going on there, besides a guy going home to spend his last few days or weeks?

That’s exactly what it’s about. He goes to his family, who doesn’t understand or appreciate him, and in fact looks upon him with rank suspicion because he’s been living in New York. His family is religious and he’s not, or hasn’t been. It’s one of those confrontations between superstition and secular rationality you see in a Flannery O’Connor story, or a sort of T.S. Eliott allusion that we do things because we’ve been instructed with certain beliefs. That clash of values is great, it’s fruitful, just as it was when Miss O’Connor did it.

Your references to Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Elliot – in one response – make me wonder what you studied at Columbia before dropping out.

Nominally, Kevin, it was English, but in fact it was sitting in coffee houses and getting drunk at night. Not a lot of studying involved in my college career, unfortunately.

What's the Bob Odenkirk connection? Are you guys Chicago pals? Also, I'm in a minority that thinks he was better as Bill Oswalt on season 1 of Fargo than Saul Bello. Is this heresy?

We have a mutual friend, Dino Stamatopoulos, and I guess Bob liked my stuff also, but I hadn’t met him till that day at his house. That’s him in Fargo? I thought it was Frances McDormand!

Over the course of your career, you've done songs that embrace and celebrate everything traditional and pure about country music; and often on the same album you might have a couple that are essentially self-parodies or caricatures of the genre. Discuss this continuum. (That sounds like a high school essay question, doesn't it?)

Too much Mad Magazine as a youngster. If I love something I put it under the light.

"Parallel Bars" is a favorite of mine, mainly because it's a duet with the dreamy Kelly Willis. You've also worked with Lucinda Williams and Nora O'Connor. With whom else would you like to duet? Or, is there already a waiting list of chicks wanting to sing with you?

You’re leaving out Joy Lynn White, Ora Jones, Donna Fulks, Jenny Scheinman, Kelly Hogan, Gail Davies, and Brennen Leigh. Other womenfolk I’d love to sing with include Jeannie Seely, Rhonda Vincent, Delia Bell, Susanna Hoffs, Annette Peacock, Jennifer Nettles, Nicole Atkins, Cecile McLorin Salvant, and the late Martha Carson. The man-woman combination is my favorite harmony situation. Who knows why, I guess the high/low contrast and the varying sets of reproductive organs must be part of the charm!

There’s a pretty decent Robbie Fulks set list here, SoundCloud.  He’s touring all over the place this spring, so check out where you can see him on his website.   

Upland Stories is available Friday, April 1 at all the usual spots, including Bloodshot Records (where you can pre-order now).

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