We’ve all stumbled across singers or musicians or songwriters that speak to us above and beyond the simple enjoyment of a song. In 2005, I had that experience when the Robbie Fulks’ CD Georgia Hard came across my desk. I had heard of Robbie Fulks and knew he was one of the “alt-country” guys from way back, but I didn’t know his music. From the first song to the last, I was floored by how much that album affected me in a way that I hadn’t felt in a LONG time. It is reminiscent of the 70’s country songs that converted me to a love of country music long ago.
That album has continued to be a favorite of mine in a job where I am surrounded by CDs and digital music all of the time. I often go back to “Leave It to a Loser” or “All You Can Cheat” for a little bit of grounding in my work.
Ten years ago I saw Robbie Fulks perform in a small listening room on the University of Texas campus. I didn’t know what to expect from him as a performer, but he swept me up in minutes with his picking, singing, and story-telling. Fulks is amazingly talented on guitar and banjo; I’m not a musician, but I can appreciate his ability. His vocals are unlike anyone else. Yes, he can be twangy. I love twangy. His stories and jokes augment the songs and make them even more memorable.
I’ve been waiting to see him perform again for years. There have been a few chances, but usually at a big festival like South By Southwest that make it hard to get to and get in. But recently I was thrilled to see that Robbie Fulks was playing at Austin’s best “listening room.” Strange Brew is a 24-hour coffee shop on the south side of town that expanded to add Strange Brew-Lounge Side where they can pack in a small crowd of fans who truly want to listen to a performer play a show.
His show was all I could hope for. Just a trio, Fulks played accompanied by two master musicians, guitarist Robbie Gjersoe and bassist Todd Phillips. Both have worked with Americana and bluegrass’s best musicians.
An enthusiastic (and totally enrapt) audience – obviously all fans familiar with his long history — greeted Fulks and soaked in the music from the newest album, Upland Stories, and the older favorites. New song “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man” became an even better song with Fulks’ story-telling, remembering how he took up the banjo as a little boy and was excited to show off his playing to his Aunt Peg (“who was about 100 years old”) who had recorded records and was “famous” for her banjo-playing. As a cocky kid, he wanted to show off his more modern riffs from Earl Scruggs that he liked better than her old-school claw hammer picking. Not a surprise, she disliked his new music as much as he disliked hers.
Fulks gets serious and pensive on each album, too, and his live stories illuminate the thinking behind the song. He introduced the song “Alabama at Night” about writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, who went to Alabama in 1936 to chronicle the sharecropper life. The result of their “mission” is the book Let Us Not Praise Famous Men. That book is now at the top of my must-read list.
The new songs flowed nicely along with some of his oldest “classics” like the opener “Every Kind of Music But Country” and “Rock Bottom, Pop. 1” from his 1996 album Country Love Songs.
Another fun aspect of a Robbie Fulks show on a Sunday night is how many Austin musicians had a night off and were on hand to see three master players. I recognized at least eight in the audience and there were probably many more I don’t know on sight.
Robbie Fulks’ bluegrass, country, honky-tonk, and novelty repertoire on CD is impressive and fun to listen to, but to truly appreciate his genius, the live show with his off-hand jokes and elaborate stories is the place to be. I hope it isn’t another 10 years before I have another opportunity to hear new stories and new music in person.
– Submitted by Janice Williams, Music Design