In the liner notes to his new album Bluegrass Vacation, released at the beginning of April, Robbie Fulks talks about his formative experiences in the genre. He also mentions how, as a young musician in the early ’80s, he drifted away from it in search of the coolness of trendier sounds. “But what made me think there was anything cooler than bluegrass?” he asks, playfully reprimanding his younger self.
Bluegrass Vacation makes the case that there is indeed nothing hipper than some of the world’s most decorated musicians tearing into a tried-and-true format. And it doesn’t hurt when they do so in service of smart, funny, heartfelt material, which is what Fulks delivers here and is emblematic of his output for the past three decades. While he proves that he can write rollicking back-porch jams like “One Glass of Whiskey” and “Let the Old Dog In,” he also slows the tempo for tender acoustic beauties like “Molly and the Old Man” and “Momma’s Eyes.” And in the stunning “Angels Carry Me,” he pushes bluegrass boundaries with a multi-movement piece of fearless lyrical and musical complexity.
Considering it took 2 ½ years from first session to album release due to pandemic holdups, Fulks is thrilled to finally have Bluegrass Vacation out in the world. He talked to BGS about early influences, his impressive cohorts on the record, and whether he’d consider dipping back into the genre again.
BGS: What are your earliest memories of bluegrass and what drew you to it?
Robbie Fulks: Early memories are a reel-to-reel tape of Doc Watson’s first Vanguard record. There were a couple of other records on the tape as well, but Doc was the first thing up, “Nashville Blues” going to “Sitting on Top of the World,” that warm, beautiful, versatile sound. Doc did all these different things that kind of put him one foot in bluegrass and one foot out. That was probably the earliest thing that hooked me. And then after that it was like The Country Gentleman and Will The Circle Be Unbroken. A couple of other records that my folks had, and then the festivals.
What made you decide that now was the time to do an all-bluegrass record?
Generally, over the last 10 years, I’ve been making more inroads. My bluegrass hot-shot Rolodex has expanded to where it’s like, holy shit, I have Jerry Douglas’ email and can call Sam Bush (laughs). It just seemed like it had reached a tipping point the last couple of years where it was like I gotta do this. The older guys are going to be dead soon including myself, and that’s part of the reason (laughs). But I’ve been leaning that way more and more for the last five to 10 years.
Did your songwriting process change at all?
I varied my angles on the songwriting as I went along. On a couple of them, I had a genre thing in mind. Like “Lonely Ain’t Hardly Alive,” I was thinking about Jimmy Martin in the late ’50s and early ’60s and wrote to that. With “Angels Carry Me,” that came about because I had inked (mandolinist) Sierra (Hull) on a session. I started thinking about what kind of a groove I would like to hear her on and wrote from the groove forward thinking about the way she plays.
And did writing for bluegrass steer you in the direction of any particular subject matter?
I’ve noticed that I gravitate repeatedly toward four or five rough subjects over and over again. One of them is alcohol, and that shows up in a couple songs. One of them is memories of when I was a kid, and that shows up. Or music itself. When these subjects show up, I always think “Should I go ahead, or not go ahead?” Because it’s well-trodden ground for me. Like “Old Time Music Is Hear to Stay,” I thought “Well, I’m writing another song about music. I’ve done of lot of that. Should I go forward?” And as I went forward with the song, I just found that I really liked it and that compensated for any qualms about having done something similar before. I guess it’s a long-winded way of saying no, it really wasn’t any different. Just going into a room with an instrument and seeing what happened.
Considering the incredible instrumentalists on this record, did you give them a lot of direction? Or was it more like, “Here’s the song. Let it rip?”
Generally, I’ve noticed in the studio that the less I say, the better. Because it’s surprising how you can say four words that seem well-chosen and exactly what you want and then things go haywire because it’s overinterpreted or misinterpreted. My approach is that I definitely have things in mind and I chart and have rough end points in mind. But when you hear the first go at it, I go with the idea that that’s what it’s going to be, like 90 percent, and then I direct the other 10 percent of it as delicately as I can.
Tell me about recording “Angels Carry Me,” which is fearless with how it expands the notion of what a bluegrass song can be.
The people that were on the session, it skewed a little younger, because Sierra was there and (guitarist) Chris (Eldridge) was there. And (fiddler) Stuart (Duncan) is just kind of ageless and genre-less, just pure music. Todd (Phillips) is the same way on the bass. He’s a really wide-brained guy. I think if it had been different players, it might have been more of a challenge. But those players can go anywhere and just have adventurous spirits, as do I. It was never a question that it would be too weird for somebody to get their mind around.
That song also has one of my favorite lines I’ve heard in a long while: “And only a fool thinks he can leave just by driving away.”
That was a line that took me by surprise. I worked on the song for three or four weeks in an attitude of mystery and concern (laughs). Because I didn’t know where it was going or what I was doing. It was kind of amorphous. But the appearance of that line at the end, it seemed like, “Ah, that could have been in my sights the whole time and I just didn’t know it.” It appeared as a gift.
Did you have to embellish any of “Longhair Bluegrass,” which talks about you going to see a festival as a kid with your parents?
I think the only untrue part is that in the fourth verse, I put an example of somebody at the festival, an old-timer that was not into the younger generation and their attitude. And I put in Wilma Lee Cooper because I looked at a poster of that Culpepper festival. Her name fit and I thought the age bracket kind of fit. In the session, Sam Bush said, “No, she was real easy-going about it.” I said, “Who wasn’t?” And he said, “Probably Ralph Stanley.” So I put that in. That was a little untruth, because I didn’t see Wilma or Ralph at that festival looking around angry. And maybe my parents weren’t stoned out of their heads like I implied in the song (laughs).
You talk in “Old Time Music Is Here to Stay” about picking up the electric guitar and then losing interest in it as you returned to more traditional sounds. How accurate is that?
100 percent. I think it was just a natural thing for me to want to swim with the current when I was 17 years old. But even at the time, I think it was at the back of my mind that this music by, I don’t know, Aztec Camera and Big Country or U2, it was OK, but it just didn’t grab me in the way that I was grabbed by a Doc Watson record. It was a little bit more work coming to the popular music of the late ’70s, early ’80s. But what can you do? The stuff that gets in you when you’re five or ten years old, that’s the stuff that doesn’t go away.
Did you feel extra pressure on this record because you wanted to do the genre proud?
There was pressure there, but it was more from being in an isolation booth and looking out the glass door and seeing Sam Bush over there or Ronnie McCoury over there. No matter how welcoming these people are, it’s a mind fuck to pick up your instrument and be playing with them (laughs). It freaked me out a little bit.
I know you just finished this one, but is it possible you could return to the genre again somewhere down the road?
I’m starting to think about what to do next. I’m open-minded. If people like this enough, I loved doing it. I would do another one.
Photo Credit: Scott Simontacchi