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
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
We caught up with Mr. Fulks and talked American literature, Year
Zero on Austin City Limits, Feuding with Mojo Nixon, and getting Called By
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
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
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
“Tears Only Run One
Way” could be a Buck Owens song. And there’s a Buck Owens-themed song on that
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
Too much Mad Magazine as a
youngster. If I love something I put it under the light.
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