“Thanks for coming out on a Tuesday night,” Robbie Fulks told the audience at Jammin’ Java. “We’re going to make it worth it, play for 5-10 more minutes than unusual. Call the babysitter.” So it was that the show started off with a display of the Chicago-based singer-songwriter’s fine sense of humor, a trait that has endeared him to audiences for some 30 years.
Known as one of the mainstays of the alt-country movement, Fulks has moved toward more folk and acoustic approaches to his music in the last decade, beginning with 2013’s Gone Away Backward and continuing with 2016’s Upland Stories. Just this month, he released his latest album, Bluegrass Vacation, the title of which is surely a play on the classic album Bluegrass Holiday by JD Crow and the New South. The album featured a numbered of revered bluegrass players, including dobro master Jerry Douglass and mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull, along with many others.
On April 18, playing with a full acoustic band — mandolin, bass, and fiddle — Robbie started the set with the closing track on the new album, “Old Time Music Is Here To Stay.” Moving on, the next song, “One Glass of Whiskey,” dealt with one of his favorite subjects: alcohol. “The Buck Starts Here,” which Fulks called “a pretty pure country song,” is all about his love for the great Buck Owens. Speaking of classic country songs, “Tears Only Run One Way,” from his first album, Country Love Songs, is a classic brokenhearted ballad, while “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” played last in the encore is a raucous party song, and Robbie’s biting wit comes to the forefront on “Goodbye, Good Lookin’.”
Stream “One Glass of Whiskey” by Robbie Fulks on YouTube:
Having recently turned 60, he told the audience, “I don’t write any more sexy love songs. I don’t want to give you any weird ideas.” “Angela,” which he called “kind of a poppy thing,” fits that description, but was written more than a decade and a half ago. He described “Angels Carry Me” as “kind of a personal tune” about “a tempestuous father-son relationship.” Raised by academics, Robbie dropped out of Columbia University to pursue music.
Themes from his childhood also emerged in “Longhair Bluegrass.” His parents took him to a festival in 1973, at which he saw, for the first time, Sam Bush, who became his hero, as well as Tony Trischka. Later that year, he saw John Hartford for the first time. He returned, at the end of the set, to pay homage to the place he grew up with “Fare The Well, Carolina Gals.”
The show briefly got philosophical when Fulks discussed his view of the nature of songs, calling them “spiritual devices.” He spoke of them as mechanisms that deliver meaning far beyond their words.
One of the funniest stories of the evening involved the great country singer, John Anderson, whom Robbie met on the Outlaw Country Cruise — for about five minutes. He described how Anderson spoke about two subjects: marijuana and guns. Though he’s been sober, but for a few odd drinks, for years, Anderson told Robbie he just can’t give up pot. He broached the subject of open carry laws in his home state of Tennessee, lightly suggesting “that seems a bit over the top.” Robbie made it clear he thinks these laws are bonkers; while the crowd was applauding that, he added he has a lot of political beliefs the crowd would not be so likely to cotton to. (My understanding is Robbie is something of a libertarian, ideologically, though he fastidiously avoids politics in his songwriting.) Anderson, he recalled, was sounding him out, following up his comment on the open carry laws with, “Of course, you never know who you’re going to run into.”
The set rounded out with a couple of his more folky tunes, “Alabama at Night,” “Katy Kay,” and “Long I Ride.” When the band returned for the encore, he copped to missing a song from the evening’s setlist, “The Many Faces of God,” so they did it before finishing up with “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.”
It’s hard to justice in a review to how lively and entertaining this show was: Robbie is one of the sharpest, funniest musicians, and much of the magic isn’t just the sounds, it’s the verbal asides and meanderings that make seeing him so special. I’ve tried to convey a bit of that, but you really have to experience it yourself.