Robbie Fulks (born March 25, 1963) is an American alternative country singer-songwriter and long-time Chicago, Illinois musician. He has released 12 albums over a career spanning more than 25 years.
Fulks was born in York, Pennsylvania, the son of a school teacher father. Fulks has a younger brother named Jubal. Fulks lived in York, Mount Joy, and Mountville in Pennsylvania; Waynesboro and Charlottesville in Virginia; and Wake Forest and Creedmoor in North Carolina. Fulks said his family moved every year as a kid until they eventually settled in North Carolina when he was 12. Fulks considers North Carolina his childhood home.
Fulks said that "everyone in my family played an instrument. I got started playing Aunt Stella’s banjo at age 7 and then I inherited my dad’s guitar. In our home there were always instruments around." Fulks experimented with his Aunt Mildred's fiddle, and "played banjo in a family band that included his father on guitar, his mother on autoharp, and a family friend on fiddle. By the time he turned 11 he decided to focus on the guitar."
Fulks said that although he spent a lot of time wanting to move to "the big city," which he later did, he is grateful to have grown up like he did, that "the country music that is in the air... that banjo and fiddle music that's part of the culture gets into you, whether you listen to it or not."
Fulks has three children with wife Donna Jay Fulks (née Jerousek), sons Nick, Preston, and Tennessee. He has an older son from a prior relationship. He has been married to Donna since October 23, 1993.
His wife Donna Fulks is a Chicago voice over actress who was the voice of JCPenney for over 10 years, and sometimes goes by her maiden name, Donna Jerousek. Fulks' son Preston is also a voice over actor. Fulks' sons have all been known to sing at his shows when present. Fulks' brother Jubal Fulks occasionally appears on his albums playing the violin.
Fulks' son, Nicolas "Nick" Fulks, and father-in-law, Donald "Don" Jerousek, were contestants on Season 12 of The Amazing Race. They placed third. Nick was born Nicolas Elvis Fulks and currently lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and works as an airline pilot. Fulks is a grandfather, as Nick has a son.
Fulks has lived in Chicago since he was 21 and considers Chicago his home. He currently lives in the North Shore of Chicago in Wilmette, Illinois, and has lived there since 2005. After living in the Logan Square area of Chicago, in 1995 he and his wife decided to move out of the city. While struggling as a musician he worked as a paralegal at Jenner & Block from 1983 to 1987.
According to an interview in 2000, Fulks described himself as a libertarian.
In 1980 at the age of 17, Fulks moved to New York City and attended Columbia University, often playing at Gerdes Folk City and other places in the West Village.
Fulks moved to Chicago in 1983 when his high school sweetheart got pregnant and they decided to move in with her parents.
In 1984, Fulks started teaching classes at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, where he met many bluegrass and folk musicians that he still works with.
Before beginning his solo career, Fulks joined The Special Consensus Bluegrass Band. He played and toured with them from the Fall of 1987 to January 1990. Here he showcased his unique guitar playing, and appeared on the Grammy-nominated album Hole In My Heart, released in 1989. Fulks credits fiddler Al Murphy as a musical mentor: "He not only introduced me to dozens of artists I had never heard, but taught me how to come to them more humbly, receptively, and intelligently."
Fulks later performed in the musical revue .
He had a band called Trailer Trash Revue "a twangy rock group I had from around 1990 to 1993 in Chicago." Fulks said that he met his wife during these shows, as she worked as a dancer in the revue.
Fulks has also hosted the "Secret Country" series at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, "at which the country troubadour presided over shows featuring critically recognized artists that lacked mainstream exposure."
Fulks began his solo career in 1993.Steve Albini engineered many of his early tracks, and was instrumental in connecting Fulks with Rob and Nan at Bloodshot Records.
While living in Chicago Fulks worked as a songwriter for music publisher API for a three year contract that expired in early 1998. He would commute to Nashville one or two weeks out of every month. Fulks found the experience frustrating.
Fulks' solo debut, Country Love Songs was released on Bloodshot Records in 1996 to positive reviews and was engineered by Steve Albini. Esteemed Missouri bar band the Skeletons, members of whom later formed the band The Morells, played on much of the record.Tom Brumley, legendary pedal steel player (Buck Owens) also appears on the record. This album was followed by 1997's South Mouth, which cemented Fulks' retro-alternative image.
As fans had grown used to Bloodshot's rough and sparse sound, many were shocked by the release of Fulks' third album, 1998's Let's Kill Saturday Night, on Geffen Records. Fulks recorded Let's Kill Saturday Night during the spring of 1998 in Nashville with producer Rick Will (No Doubt, AC/DC, Gillian Welch). The record includes performances by Lucinda Williams, Sam Bush, Bill Lloyd, and Al Anderson as well as guitarist Rob Gjersoe (Jimmie Dale Gilmore), bassist Lorne Rall, and drummer Dan Massey.
When Geffen disbanded shortly after the release of the record, Fulks found himself without a label, so he started his own company, Boondoggle Records (where he often licenses his music to be distributed by Bloodshot), and released an album of previously unreleased material called The Very Best of Robbie Fulks.
2001 saw the release of both Couples in Trouble, a dark, brooding, and decidedly non-country album, and, just three months later, 13 Hillbilly Giants, a collection of covers of classic country numbers both obscure and well known. Both records were released by Bloodshot Records. In 2001, Robbie was also an inaugural member of the Independent Music Awards' judging panel to support independent artists.
Fulks would not release another album until 2005, when the release of Georgia Hard on Yep Roc Records showed a return to his county roots. Georgia Hard was notable for its use of long-time Nashville talent like Lloyd Green, Hank Singer, Dennis Crouch, Dallas Wayne.
He also gained attention for a novelty single he wrote called "Fountains of Wayne Hotline," in which he imagined the power pop band Fountains of Wayne as having a hotline that struggling songwriters could call for help with their song structure.
In April 2007, Fulks released a 2-CD album Revenge! (also on Yep Roc) composed mainly of live concert recordings primarily of older songs, but including some new material. One disc, labeled Standing features a full-band sound, while the second disc, Sitting, consists of Fulks with little or no musical accompaniment. Standing opens with a tongue-in-cheek song studio track "We're On the Road" which describes life on tour and simulates a telephone call to Fulks from Yep Roc Records President Glenn Dicker, demanding a new record and denigrating the sales performance of the "path-breaking, not chart-breaking" album Georgia Hard.
In 2009, Fulks self-released a 50-song, alphabetically organized mass of songs via his website, a compilation called 50-Vc. Doberman. On this electronic-only release, and Fulks' method of openly embracing the electronic distribution of music in a way that is uniquely atypical from the "country-industry Nashville-songwriter" world he is connected to: "in a lot of ways, I identify more with people outside of country, except for country is the music I play. The way that people go about it; the way musicians sort of conceive and discuss what they do."
In 2010, Fulks released his album Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson via Yep Roc Records as a tribute to the recently deceased Michael Jackson, in which he covered a group of Jackson's songs. He had been working on the record since 2005. Fulks said that he did "guitar-mando arrangements of MJ music for his birthday at a municipal Chicago thingamajig in 1999 and it took off from there."
In 2013, Fulks released Gone Away Backwards, which was recorded and mixed by Steve Albini. The record was released on Bloodshot Records. The album features banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and is Fulks' first record for Bloodshot since 2001's 13 Hillbilly Giants. "That’s Where I’m From" is a song Fulks cites as being autobiographical. Four songs from 50-Vc. Doberman were the genesis of Gone Away Backwards. The title of the record comes from the book Isaiah in The Bible, where God says to the Israelites: "Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward." Fulks said the words struck him as a "country phrase."
Gone Away Backwards is an acoustic record, and is a lot more like the back porch / living room music that his family used to do as a kid than what he was doing in his 20s and 30s, so "it's kind of 'Gone Backwards'" to that, as the title says, Fulks says. Fulks said that the stylistic idea of the record was focused around the acoustic quintet of players on the record - Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Mike Bubb (Del McCoury Band), the studio where the record was recorded, and the older country music and pre-bluegrass music—and also Fulks' age. Reflective, sometimes sad record, but also with some light moments as well. Recorded live without overdubs and without playback but they "recorded 2 dozen songs over 3 and a half days, so there was a lot of material to edit from."
As a songwriter Fulks is difficult to categorize. Fulks "has a genius for twisting and subverting country tropes," and "there’s more to Fulks than tomfoolery and glibly satirical lyrics." Many of his compositions are silly, funny or spoof songs, while others are serious country songs. A good example of the alternative nature of some of his work is the song "Godfrey" ("the sickly, unemployed, amateur children's magician") on the compilation album for children .
Although known for live shows covering pop songs that could be considered parts of throwaway culture, Fulks still "manages to find the kernel of value in some of these songs." Addressing this, Fulks sees this approach as often problematic: "I have done that, ... and I'm trying never to do that now. [Laughter.] I think it's kind of limiting, and I've had this problem over the years, that if you do something that's either jokey or lighthearted or has some amusing aspect to it, it's like being a communist or going to a communist meeting in 1949—it just spreads like poison to all your other activities."
His music is described by many to be either alternative country or folk. Fulks' songwriting often includes humor. But from early in his career, his talent has never been in dispute, with The New York Times characterizing Fulks' talent, as to "what really sets him apart is his songwriting, one part artful country, one part artful sendup of country, and one part a little of everything else."
Fulks has an encyclopedic knowledge of country and pop music, what he calls a "chaotic jukebox of obscure and unloved songs from the last 50 years," and has produced a critically lauded tribute to Johnny Paycheck called Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck that was released by Sugar Hill Records in 2004.
Fulks says: "I'm really open minded. I like to experiment and I like adventure in music." He says that you get to make 10 or 20 records in your career, so "why not push the envelope and see what you are capable of doing rather than recycle the same old ideas over and over again."
His musicianship has been called "impeccable" and the level of Fulks' artistry is so complete "that it suggests a world in which Fulks isn’t a household name is somehow upside down."
Fulks often plays at The Hideout, a bar and club in Chicago, and has done long-term residencies there. During these residencies, Fulks performs anything from current popular hits to jazz to obscure country masterpieces. Fulks says at these shows he hardly ever performs his own music: "I have this outlet for the other side of my interests at the Hideout residency," which adds to the exploratory nature of the Hideout shows, "bringing stuff that I just happen to be in love with at the moment to light, and usually altering it so that it fits my particular voice."
His live performances feature improvised rearrangements of his original songs, off-the-cuff musical humor, and covers of songs by Michael Jackson, Cher, Shania Twain, The Bangles, among others.
“Almost every record I’ve done has been a concept record because I try to think of what the poles are that I’m gonna work in between,” explains Robbie. “On this one Gone Away Backward it seemed like the songs were veering toward a certain place—acoustic, bluegrass and pre-bluegrass acoustic country with a Southern gothic tinge to it.”
Fulks has co-written with Dallas Wayne, NRBQ's Al Anderson, to name a few.
Fulks has a long-time association with engineer Steve Albini (Big Black, Shellac).
- Fulks writes a blog on his website that covers everything from music, musicianship, to the books he is reading. Fulks says he uses the blog as a tool to sharpen his writing. "I think it's inherently interesting to see what a musician who can write says about what he does every day"
- His son Preston Fulks' artwork was featured on The Bottle Let Me Down
- On February 27, 2012 Drew Carey posted a link to the Robbie Fulks song "Fuck This Town" on his Twitter account, which led the National Enquirer to conclude that he was having a mid-life crisis. Fulks responded by saying "In a way I hope that the Enquirer's evidence does indicate insanity, because it would mean that—whew!—I myself am solidly compos mentis."
- The indie-rock band Silkworm covered Fulks' song "Let's Kill Saturday Night," as did Pinmonkey
- Tina Fey, in a "Ask Tina" video extra for 30 Rock, called Fulks a "Chicago-area alt-country genius" In a January 2014 interview on WTTW's Chicago Tonight, Fulks said he has known Fey for over 20 years, as he taught her ukelele at the Old Town School of Folk Music when she needed to learn how to play it for a skit during her Second City Chicago main stage days, saying they keep "loosely" in touch
- 1996: Country Love Songs (Bloodshot)
- 1997: South Mouth (Bloodshot)
- 1998: Let's Kill Saturday Night (Geffen)
- 2000: The Very Best of Robbie Fulks (Bloodshot)
- 2001: Couples in Trouble (Boondoggle)
- 2001: 13 Hillbilly Giants (Bloodshot)
- 2004: Live at Double Door 1/16/04 (EMusic Live)
- 2005: Georgia Hard (Yep Roc)
- 2007: Revenge! (Yep Roc)
- 2009: 50 Vc. Doberman 50 song digital release (Boondoggle)
- 2010: Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson (Boondoggle)/(Yep Roc)
- 2013: Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot)
- 1994: "Cigarette State" - For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country (Bloodshot)
- 1995: "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)" - Hell-Bent: Insurgent Country Volume 2 (Bloodshot)
- 1997: "Wedding of the Bugs" (studio version) - Straight Outta Boone County: Cowboy Songs, Home Songs, Western Songs, Mountain Songs (Bloodshot)
- 1998: "Across the Alley from the Alamo" - The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills: The King of Western Swing (Bloodshot)
- 1999: "Call of the Wrecking Ball" - Poor Little Knitter on the Road: A Tribute to The Knitters (Bloodshot)
- 2000: "Bloodshot's Turning 5" - Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records (Bloodshot)
- 2002: "Godfrey" - The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides (Bloodshot)
- 2004: "Tears at the Grand Ol' Opry" - Hard-Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson (Bloodshot)
- 2004: "Shakin' The Blues" (with Gail Davies) - Touch My Heart: a Tribute to Johnny Paycheck (Sugar Hill Records); Fulks produced this record also
- 2006: "Browns Ferry Blues" - Old Town School Songbook: Volume One (Bloodshot)
- 2006: "Dirty-Mouthed Flo" (live) - Bloodied But Unbowed: Bloodshot Records' Life In The Trenches (DVD) (Bloodshot)
- 2006: "Dirty-Mouthed Flo" (live) - Bloodied But Unbowed: The Soundtrack (Bloodshot)
- 2014: "Sally G" (Paul McCartney cover) - () WFMU fundraiser CD
- official website
- discography at MusicBrainz
- at AllMusic