Robbie Fulks wrapping up local music residency, looking to Grammys
There's a moment on his 2007 live album, "Revenge," where suburban musician Robbie Fulks jokingly tells the audience that he has a hard time writing songs as a middle-aged man because he no longer likes anything very much.
Fulks laughs when reminded of the comment.
"It was a joke, but there is a kernel of truth there," he said. "The subject matter that interests you when you're young doesn't really serve you well when you're older."
Fulks, whose early work includes songs such as "She Took A Lot of Pills (And Died)" and "(Expletive) This Town," said that today he seeks creative inspiration in the small triumphs and heartbreaks of everyday life. Those tales dominate his acclaimed 2016 record, "Upland Stories."
The album has garnered rave reviews, with numerous outlets, including Rolling Stone magazine and NPR, placing it on their "best of the year" lists.
"Upland Stories" also has earned Fulks two Grammy nominations -- for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song (for album opener "Alabama At Night"). The nominations are the first for Fulks and the first for an album put out by his label -- Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. "It's absolutely wonderful to see such a hardworking and supremely talented artist be recognized," reads a statement on the Bloodshot website.
"We have been fortunate to work with Robbie for the last couple of decades."
Fulks, a former Lake County resident who now lives in Wilmette, moved to the Chicago area in the mid-1980s after spending his childhood in small towns in North Carolina and Virginia. Since moving here, he has been a key fixture in the city's thriving roots-music scene, turning regional (and national) heads with a slew of literate records that blended punk, country, bluegrass and pop.
"Upland Stories" retains the mostly-acoustic sound of its predecessor, 2013's "Gone Away Backward" -- fiddle, banjo and pedal steel accompany Fulks' guitar-playing and expressive, twangy vocals. The songs observe daily life with the keen eye of an ace fiction writer.
"Never Come Home" tells the story of a sick old man who is greeted with scorn and bitterness when he returns to his hometown. In the quiet but affecting "Needed," a father reflects on the wonderful and terrifying bonds that form between husband and wife and parent and child.
The song "Baby Rocks Her Dolly" is not a Robbie Fulks composition -- it was written by Merle Kilgore and became a hit in the 1960s for Frankie Miller -- but Fulks' strong vocal performance makes this tale of domestic nostalgia his own.
"I'd always liked the song, and it seemed to fit with the other songs on this record," Fulks said.
"These are all life stories, really. That's the thing for me now, and I think my audience is probably grateful. You know, when a gray-haired man gets up and starts singing some love song, asking the listener to picture him in a furtive embrace with someone, that just makes everyone uncomfortable. I know I would be disturbed by it."
"Upland Stories" was recorded by longtime collaborator Steve Albini, a veteran of the Chicago punk scene known for his noise-rock band Shellac and for creating the jagged electric sound on rock albums such as Nirvana's "In Utero" and P.J. Harvey's "Rid of Me."
Fulks said Albini's skills are just as formidable with acoustic material.
"The recording aesthetic that Steve has is really great," Fulks said.
"He creates an unfussy sound, an honest sound. The song 'Katy Kay,' for instance. It's a comic song, one of the slighter ones on the record, and Steve's mixing on it was amazing. There's a banjo that you almost can't hear, but it really adds something to the song. That's his genius."
Fulks is known for a relentless touring schedule, one that includes a long-running Monday-night residency at the Hideout in Chicago. The residency, which comes to an end in February, allows Fulks to perform with a variety of collaborators and play Roger Miller classics, Velvet Underground covers or whatever strikes his fancy.
"I've been doing it for about seven years, and it's been great for me, a laboratory where I could try new things," he said.
"But it feels like a good time to bring that to a close."
The Grammy Awards ceremony, meanwhile, airs on Sunday, Feb. 12, on CBS. Has Fulks thought about what it might feel like to win?
"The whole thing is pretty surreal," he said.
"But hey, I'd take it."
Robbie FulksWhen: 7 p.m. most Mondays through Feb. 27; no show Feb. 13
Where: The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, Chicago; hideoutchicago.com
Tickets: $10 suggested donation