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Robbie Fulks takes 'Bluegrass Vacation'

Courtesy photo

Robbie Fulks recently released his first-ever bluegrass album, title Bluegrass Vacation. He says some of the album's best songs comes from his personal experiences.

Singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks will perform at Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine on Sunday afternoon, June 11.

Fulks also has an area date Saturday, June 10, at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Missouri.

The dates are in support of his new album, "Bluegrass Vacation," on which he collaborates with fellow luminaries such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull, Alison Brown and John Cowan.

Typical of Fulks' larger output, the record is a collection of precise songs that speak to the human condition with warmth, sadness and humor.

Fulks recently spoke with KMUW from his home in California about the album and his longtime love of bluegrass.

Interview Highlights

So why a bluegrass album now?

It's funny you should ask because I've been asked that before, and just now when you called, I was reading an interview with myself on the "Bluegrass Situation" website because somebody sent it to me and so the answer is right at the top of my brain. I've got this Rolodex of well-known bluegrass people — friends, basically — and it's been expanding for the last five-to-10 years and at the point that you have Sam Bush's phone number of Jerry Douglas' [you think], "Why not make a bluegrass record?" All of those people, including myself, who are older, are going to be dead before long, and it's something I wanted to do.

Nothing like seizing the moment.

It's amazing that, to put it more positively than I just did, all of those guys still play as well as they did when they were 18, 20 years old. It's amazing compared to people in other genres. In popular music, you don't necessarily expect some 70-year-old guy to be doing the same physical skills he was doing when he was 20 years old. But in bluegrass it seems to be different than that.

I love bluegrass, and I think I maybe came to the music the same way that you describe in "Longhair Bluegrass." How much of that is autobiographical and how much is character study?

That song is totally true from my experience. In fact, I think the only not-true line in it, from my point-of-view anyway, is that I needed a figure to stand in there in the one verse that said, "One of the old-timers was looking askance at the young hippies and didn't like it." I had Wilma Lee Cooper as that person. I just read the poster from that particular festival from Virginia in 1973; I didn't remember almost any of the acts that were appearing, but I looked at the poster and saw that Wilma was on it and thought, "Well, that fits syllabically into the line. I can imagine her looking askance like that."

But then on the session, Sam Bush was playing on that song, and I said, "Does that work? That reference to Wilma?" He said, "No, I don't remember her being at all agitated by any of the hippie weirdness." I said, "Who was?" And he said, "Maybe Ralph Stanley." So, I plucked that in there, and I think that's the only part that doesn't come from personal observation and experience.

You also reference Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in there, and, of course, that first "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album was that joining of the two generations. … Were you a fan of that record as well?

Oh yeah. I felt that that record was culturally explosive. I might be responding to shallow prompts in the culture and press stories and hype around that record. As I remember there was newspaper coverage of the record included with the record, with cover art. [Laughs.] But that struck me as wholly earned. This meeting of the old-timers. It was supposed to be Bill Monroe [on the record] but they couldn't get him, so Roy Acuff was in a way the stand-in for Monroe.

The meeting of guys like that and Jimmy Martin and Mother Maybelle [Carter] with Randy Scruggs and Norman Blake and the Dirt Band themselves? That was like … What was it? It was legitimizing, wasn't it?

What was it about bluegrass when you first heard it that was so exhilarating?

I would think back to particular albums and particular acts. Each act puts a little bit of a different slant on that question. "What makes you respond positively to this or that?" In the case of Doc Watson, which is probably my earliest memory and is not specifically bluegrass, it was the person. The person was [important]. It seemed like there was a personality represented in that music and that Martin guitar playing and that harmonica and banjo playing and that style of singing and in the repertoire that he chose.

In Jimmy Martin, it's humor, it's groove; in Jim & Jesse it's that fantastic mandolin playing and the fun themes that they cover. And obviously the speed. The speed and the fluency and the playing and the high nasal singing, which not everybody responds to, but I like it.

I also wanted to ask you about "Angels Carry Me." The first time I heard that there were two things that struck me. I thought, "This is one of those melodies that just seems to have come from nowhere and yet at the same time has always been there." Secondly, I was a little upset because I thought, "How can this guy write so many dang good lines in one song?"

[Laughs.] That's good to hear because I was really pleased by that song. Some of these songs you feel like somebody else kind of guided your hand. It doesn't seem to come from your own decisions and thoughts exactly. But the way that that turned out, I was just, like, really happy with it.

You mentioned the melody of it. The core of the verse is totally simple; it's just a downward scale [sings]. That's the kind of basis of the melody and the chords. Like a lot of complex things that are good, it has a simplicity at its base is how I would sum it up.

I think of that song as being kind of a pair with "Longhair Bluegrass" because there's that line in there about "Radio gods whispered a promise" and "becoming a stranger to my old man." I think of that moment when one becomes really involved in their craft, and they're [no longer] following in their parents' footsteps.

My dad … we did have kind of a troubled relationship, but the commonality was the bluegrass and the music more than anything. When I would hear him try to play bluegrass — because he wasn't really a natural bluegrass player, he was a fingerstyle player, but he loved the Doc Watson and the [blue]grass and he tried to do it. I would hear him trying to do Doc lines on the guitar and [hear him] getting frustrated and cursing.

I think that in my own head I was unconsciously thinking, "Well, maybe I can beat him in this one domain." And I kind of did.

Did he see you begin to make records and have some success as a songwriter?

Yeah, he died only just under two years ago. He was totally supportive of that and enjoyed coming to my shows and listening to my records.

I'm seeing my own musician son do better than me in some ways in music. He plays in a popular band. He just played at the Ryman, he played the Coachella Festival, and I'm so unqualifiedly happy for that. Whatever competition is inherent in the father/son relationship is totally overwhelmed by these indices of success. I think that was true of my relationship with my dad, too, as far as whatever musical success I had.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.