Robbie Fulks on collaboration, Bluegrass Vacation, and trying new things at 60
The country musician plays Knuckleheads Saturday, June 10.
Musician Robbie Fulks has been making records for decades. Ostensibly, they’re country, but they encompass so many genres it’s impossible to pigeonhole him. Case in point is Fulks’ latest album, Bluegrass Vacation, on Compass Records. The record features the likes of icons Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, and Tim O’Brien, to name but a few, and sees the longtime performer stretching out into something to which he’s always nodded, but never explicitly embraced.
Robbie Fulks is bringing the second leg of the tour in support of Bluegrass Vacation to Knuckleheads this Saturday, June 10, and we took the opportunity to hop on the phone with the musician to talk about his connections to Kansas City and what collaboration means to him.
The Pitch: You have a long connection to this area. How did that start?
Robbie Fulks: Let me think now. Where were my first shows down there? What was the name of that little bar room where Michelle was the booker? Davey’s Uptown. That might have been the beginning of it for me there. But I don’t know. Why do you say that I have a connection there?
Well, just because on your first album you’re backed by the Morells and Lou Whitney produced so many albums by bands from Kansas City. He’s from Springfield, but because of work like that, he was as much of Kansas City as he was of that area.
That’s a good point, which I had overlooked. Springfield and Kansas City, culturally—obviously one’s a little more bustling and cosmopolitan and big—but something about [the Morells] and the Skeletons attracted me hugely when I was in my 20s. I was a big fan of both of those.
I used the convenient fact that Lou and I shared a lawyer to set up a session and travel down there and have them cut some songs with me. The guys in the Skeletons were very willing and happy to make the small money that I was paying them and make my songs sound better. We were just off to the races after that. Lou was very easy to get along with—an extremely good-humored, articulate, thoughtful guy and I just felt at home there right away.
One of the things that’s always appealed to me about your music is just the sheer number of collaborators you’ve worked with over the years. How have you come to work with such a wide variety of people? From John Langford’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts record to recording with Steve Albini, you are not contained to one group.
I guess it really just comes down to the fact that I’m interested in a lot of different kinds of music, and I have been since I was little. I think that the categories and the scenes and the tribes are kind of an artificial imposition, in a way, on the reality of it.
For my part of the music world, it’s songs, right? It’s words and music and rhythm, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in just dirty South or Midwest roots rock. I’m just interested in music and songs. Beyond that, I think it’s just that I’ve got the cajones to call people on the phone and ask them, “Do you wanna do this or that with me?” and “How does this sound?” I guess I’m a friendly enough guy that I don’t scare people away.
To that end, you have covered innumerable artists in innumerable genres, and I think that’s a very good reflection of your love of the song as opposed to sheering to some sort of genre.
Yeah, I guess I enjoy thinking about it almost as much as doing it. And I think you know, for me the last 40 years of trying to do it professionally have been an occasion to try to think about what I’m doing and what’s and why I’m doing it, and to keep learning more and to keep honing it. I don’t wanna say anything disparaging about the way other people do it, but it seems to me watching some other musicians that they just get onto a hamster. You see them when they’re 20, and they’re all full of vim and vigor, and then you see them when they’re 60, they’re worn out and just trudging on to the next gig like it’s a chain that they can’t escape.
I didn’t wanna be that kind of old person and luckily, I’m not that kind of old person. I’m still really interested in the game and learning, although I don’t have as much capacity for learning as I used to.
Well, you turned 60 this year, and you put out your first bluegrass album. That seems like you’ve got a capacity to at the very least stretch what you do.
Well, thanks. That was really going back to one of my first music. My dad and mom listened to a lot of bluegrass when I was a kid, and it was pretty much the first thing I started on with the banjo and guitar when I was a kid. I think most of my records have a definite nod to bluegrass, even if they don’t have a Scruggs-style banjo cracking along. You can tell that I’m interested in that. But yeah, this is the first time I did it.
The challenge was to basically sit in a room with people like Chris Eldridge, Sam Bush, and Sierra Hall, and not just start shaking like a leaf on a tree. I just play along with those people, and they’re very welcoming, but I never quite got outta that mindset—“Holy shit, look at this!”
You’ve got Tim O’Brien on this album, and that’s taking a risk.
Tim, Sam, and David Grier—most of the people on that record—I wasn’t meeting them for the first time and then doing the session. Stuart Duncan, that was the case, and maybe one or two others, but most of them, we had a pre-existing relationship, even if it was more of an acquaintanceship than sitting down and playing music together.
With Tim, I think that relationship goes back now for over 20 years. It wasn’t deep, but it was friendly, and he’s about the last person that would make you feel tense and uptight to sit down with. He’s just got a really all-in, ecumenical attitude for the music. He’s a good role model in that way to learn from.
With Bluegrass Vacation, how has that changed how your live sets are going on this tour?
The first two months after the record came out, I went out with a few different groups of people. Different personnel, but the idea was a quartet of guitar, bass, fiddle, and mandolin. The banjo was an extra piece. It was just a little bit too hard to afford, and even the quartet was pretty hard to afford, but I did that for two months, and for the next couple of weeks, I’m going out with a fiddler for a slightly more stripped-down kind of presentation.
I mainly don’t think about songs as needing instruments. I think I can pull them off. I don’t like to play alone, so I don’t do it that much, but when I play alone, I think I can bring as much to an emotional experience and present the song as fully as I can do it with a duo or a trio, or a quartet.
Which exact instruments it is often doesn’t matter that much. It’s just the particular sounds that I like to hear and that I’m used to hearing. The song is the basis of it, and the emotion of the performance is the basis of it. That doesn’t imply that it’s gotta be this group of exact people or exact instruments.
Given that you have performed solo and with full bands and stripped down as you’re going out now, how does that affect your set list? You have so many songs to draw from. Are there songs that are evergreen that you’re always going to play, or does the group sometimes make you want to try something new?
I would just start with the idea of a setlist which, if you’re leading a quartet or a quintet or something bigger, then it’s like leading an elephant around in a way—where you want to have a plan. “Where are we going and which muscles are moving which way, and what’s the overall picture?” It’s more necessary to have a plan. That’s maybe not the best metaphor that I just introduced, but a set list in an event is, I find to be pretty important with a larger group.
But with a duo—like, I’m going out with a fiddler, Shad Cobb, that I’ve worked with for a lot of years now for the next two weeks, and I asked him last night, “Do you wanna have a set list?” He said, “Nah, it’s not really needed. Just call ’em.” That sort of lightness on your feet is really only possible with a duo and, obviously, solo.
Not having a plan is really pretty cool. It’s like improvisation in the theater. It just forces you into the moment, into the present, and looking at the faces before you, and feeling what the moment feels like and choosing what song should come next based on that feeling, rather than looking down at the piece of paper all the time.
Robbie Fulks with Dallas Wayne and Redd Volkaert plays Knuckleheads on Saturday, June 10, with special guest Tater and the Gravy Train. Details on that show here.