Robbie Fulks is a country singer. While he may be Pennsylvania-born and a current fixture in the talented Chicago music scene — definite marks of a Yankee — Fulks has more authentic country cred in one tip of his boot than the whole damn lot of those cookie-cutter, ProTooled hacks coming out of Nashville these days.
This is Fulks’ first visit to Charleston since he came through with a bluegrass band in the late ’80s, and it’s about damn time we get some of his by turns boisterous, insightful, angry, and jubilant tunes live and in person. The music of Robbie Fulks might as well be tailor-made for true Southern music fans, the ones who won’t stand for that Toby Keith jingoistic nonsense, who just want to hear skilled musicians playing their hearts out and having a good time doing it.
Fulks has been in and out of the biz since 1987, when he was playing bluegrass in whatever touring band could help him earn enough to feed his young child at home in Illinois. Although he’d been creating music since he first picked up a banjo at age seven, Fulks had always been a sideman until 1994, when the then-new Bloodshot Records (a label based in Chicago) released a compilation featuring The Sundowners performing Fulks’ song “Cigarette State.”
Since then, Fulks has been operating in his own orbit, skirting Nashville briefly as a contracted songwriter (in case you’re wondering how he feels about that period, check out the song “Fuck This Town” on his second album, South Mouth) and mingling with the Gay Messiah for his first (and only) foray into major-label territory, 1998’s Let’s Kill Saturday Night, released on Geffen Records.
Tale as old as time — the contract with Geffen petered out (amicably, though) and Fulks returned to Bloodshot for Very Best of Robbie Fulks in 1999. He put out two albums in 2001 on Bloodshot, another one in 2004, and in 2005 switched to the North Carolina-based Yep Roc for the epic Georgia Hard, a wistful gem of an album that made it onto many critics’ top 10 lists that year (including this writer’s).
Today, he’s hanging in Chicago with his wife and family between short stints on the road and hosting a show called “Robbie’s Secret Country,” on XM Radio, where he interviews and showcases country musicians of all stripes and ages, recording their performances live at Chicago’s Old Town School of Music.
“I guess since I run with country musicians, the concert aspect of it is appealing to the guys at Old Town,” Fulks says, “because I just call up friends half the time and offer them the date, it’s real easy to set up like that, you don’t have agents dealing with agents, it’s just dealt with on a friendly basis a lot of the time. It’s real exciting for me because I grew up listening to these guys and have been inspired by them for a long time and, in fact, you kinda hear that I get attacked by nerves, but it’s real rewarding to work on them, you get to present it and shape it a little bit; it’s almost a privilege, you know?”
It’s about time Fulks was rewarded for his hard work and no-bullshit-but-still-whatta-nice-guy attitude. He comes through town this week for the first time in 20 years, playing at the Village Tavern with guitarist Robbie Gjersoe for a set of songs spanning his catalog. Let’s not let another 20 years slide by, okay, Robbie?