Robbie plays by nobody’s rules—except the ones he hears in his head. He is prodigiously talented, with the soul of a country singer and the mind of a vaudevillian. In his 30+ year career, he has performed alongside Greg Cahill (Special Consensus), fiddler Liz Carroll, jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, and the legendary Dr. John, and he is regarded as one of the most gifted songwriters to ever ply the trade. Lost in the deserved accolades for being a fabulously unique, clever, and heartfelt writer is the fact that he’s also one of the best guitarists around: honky-tonk, country, bluegrass, power pop, or whatever strikes his ample whimsy at the time.
On his newly released Upland Stories, Fulks’s richly emotional storytelling is illuminated by his instrumental prowess and emotional voice. At 53, he is philosophically reflective, writing “with clear eyes and a full heart” (Ken Tucker, NPR). Coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s in Virginia and North Carolina, at the edge of the broad “upland” region referenced in the record’s title, also provided depth and detail for Fulks’s songs about the mysteries of memory, the vanishing of cherished things, and the struggles of everyday life. Robbie tries to make songs that offer more than verse-chorus-hook: songs that have space, calmness, unresolved tensions, and the hallmarks of lived experience. This sort of complexity is displayed in “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals,” an intimate folk song from the perspective of a man who has let life’s possibilities pass him by, and in “Never Come Home,” in which a sick man returns to spend his last days among an unwelcoming clan of pious, hard-bitten East Tennesseans.
Accompanying Fulks for his Wilson Center debut is Flatlanders guitarist Robbie Gjersoe.
Twenty years ago, Robbie’s exuberance for old-school country made a lot of noise. Today, his storytelling through folk and bluegrass music on Upland Stories delivers the quieter, sometimes unsettling truths of humanity.