Robbie Fulks On Empurpling the Gendarmes at Rehearsal and Covering Oscar the Grouch at his First Gig

April 12, 2016

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

I had a Ford Club Wagon that went for 6 years and 262,000 miles, then a Chevy Express that went for 12 years and 198,000 miles. Before the Club Wagon I rented for some years, and before that I was out in a Ford Econoline with a bluegrass quartet for a few years. Now I’m renting again because I’m balking at the cost of a new 15-passenger. I’ve travelled for shorter stretches in Ford Transits, Sprinters, and 15-passengers with trailers. Never on a bus.

The short story is that my main experience is with the Express and the Club Wagon. The Express was better in almost every department. It ran smoother, had fewer mechanical issues, steered better, the seats were more comfortable. I’m very at home, by now, with van travel, and I believe the disadvantage of not being able to walk around is outweighed by the advantages of freer scheduling, simpler parking, cheaper touring and just the joy of driving. I heartily endorse the Chevrolet Express.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

I don’t think that’s consistently possible. Recently, for instance, I was shut inside a college auditorium all day and pretty much at the mercy of the catering, which was boiled noodles with ragu and brussels sprouts stems for late lunch and cold Papa John’s pizza for late-night snack. So, brussels sprouts, someone tried anyway. By the time we were released the restaurants in town were shut down, which happens a little too often. Going hungry and skipping a meal isn’t the worst on-job condition in the world, being shut up in a coal mine is. Otherwise, I look for better chains like Panera and generally avoid local color. In many American towns and at nearly all interstate exits, the local color amounts to frosty stares and an early grave.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I haven’t broken strings hardly at all since the 1980s, when I played way too hard. I change strings before each show and keep my saddle in shape so it’s not an issue now.

Where do you rehearse? Are there any particular peculiarities or crazy experiences that you’ve had there?

I don’t rehearse with other people very much, I just send them the records before the gig, or if it’s not released I squawk into the Garage Band and send that. When I do rehearse with them it’s the same space where I practice by myself — my living room.

Not many crazy things happen because I’m old. However, if this counts, once when I was rehearsing my Couples in Trouble record in my living room around 7 at night, the guy in the house across the way got upset and started calling me. I heard the phone ringing after a while and looked at the caller ID and saw his name. Since he was scary and crazy (and of course he was the head honcho of the association that ran my subdivision), I decided to let it ring. So it rang and rang and the players and I stared at the rotary phone as it clocked up thirty rings. Then it fell silent.

We returned to our instruments and struck the first downbeat of the next song. Then it started ringing again, and rang at least forty more times before stopping. This replayed a half-dozen times over the next half-hour, with more and more rings. He was a patient man, and yet an angry one. And we really weren’t playing very loud, as the few people who own the Couples in Trouble record can verify.

So the rehearsal ended an hour or so later, and when I opened my email, it had many many entries in the box with title line in caps: “drums and bass.” That’s really not crazy. There are so many crazy and loud bands in the world, and I don’t understand how they get along when I can’t even make a little tap on the snare without empurpling the gendarmes.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

“I’m blind and I’m crippled and sooo lonely/and I have nowhere to go” from “The Little Boy on the C.B. Radio”

Describe your first gig.

I got up with my dad at a basement bar in Timonium, MD and sang Oscar the Grouch’s classic “I Love Trash” in 1971. It was a big moment for me, mustering up the courage, and I remember when we practiced it the day before, with my dad playing and me singing, I forgot the words and my dad stopped and looked at me. “What are you going to do if that happens tomorrow night?” He said. “what are you going to do?” And the words echoed like bad flashback sound effects in my small head. Well, I didn’t forget a word at the performance.

In the years since I have forgotten a whole lot of words while singing, and learned that it’s not as monumental as it seemed at the time. You make up another word in its place, or you make a vague vowel sound and hope no one notices, or you go “b-b-b-“ with your lips and roll your eyes ruefully at your own absentmindedness and get a sympathetic little laugh — a too-perfectly memorized show is actually sometimes boring.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

I was a paralegal/proofreader from 1983 to 1986. Since then I office temped a little but that’s it. I couldn’t say which of those two was my favorite. I loathed each one so much. I can’t watch “The Office” to this day.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

Well that’s the thing, when I think about the titanic changes in the music biz since the 1970s — I believe what I’ve read, I know the business has cratered and/or decentralized — I get excited about the smashing of old structures and new opportunities for bright self-motivated young people, and yet I can’t really relate any of that to much of my experience or economic history. I’ve made the same money each year since the mid-1980s, just stuck in the mid-5-figures with a few flukes where I struck it (very) temporarily rich for a few exceptional years.

I’m lucky to be in an area of music where being wizened and creaky is more of an asset than a liability, and so I’m not expecting that my income will plummet when I’m 70. By then my death-haunted songs should really strike a nerve in my small coterie of terrified listeners.

To musicians starting out and getting a feel for the business, I can only say that though there are pros and cons to big corporate deals, self-run imprints, and 50-50 net splits with strong independents, my own success and personal happiness have generally graphed from worse to better in that order.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

I didn’t know that being a musician was being a salesman, just like most kinds of work. I actually supposed that it was a haven for people who, like me, didn’t have a strong feel for, or interest in, business and money.

What I’ve found out is that you take that approach at your own peril. Unless you’re very lucky, at-the-far-reach-of-the-tail-end-of-the-bell-curve lucky, you’ll either trust your business to someone else and they’ll make a hash of it, or you’ll educate yourself about business and money at least to some small extent — and those who do best learn it best.

Money and business consume your thoughts to a really shocking extent when you’re a working musician, even if it’s just telling yourself obsessively that you’re not interested in money as you count your pennies and try to stay afloat. It’s sadly ironic that so many unmaterialistic people are drawn to music, but there’s no getting around the facts of life, or for that matter the profusion of aging bitterly disappointed musicians who feel they’ve never gotten their due. “Wish your son luck and throw him into the sea,” says the old Spanish proverb.

If you want to trust your career to something other than luck, learn the basics of business and try to get a good manager too!

Robbie Fulks was born in York, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a half-dozen small towns in southeast Pennsylvania, the North Carolina Piedmont, and the Blue Ridge area of Virginia. He learned guitar from his dad, banjo from Earl Scruggs and John Hartford records, and fiddle (long since laid down in disgrace) on his own. He attended Columbia College in New York City in 1980 and dropped out in 1982 to focus on the Greenwich Village songwriter scene and other ill-advised pursuits.

In the mid-1980s he moved to Chicago and joined Greg Cahill’s Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, with whom he made one record (Hole in My Heart, Turquoise, 1989) and toured constantly. Since then he has gone on to create a multifarious career in music. He was a staff instructor in guitar and ensemble at Old Town School of Folk Music from 1984 to 1996. He worked on Nashville’s Music Row as a staff songwriter for Songwriters Ink (Joe Diffie, Tim McGraw, Ty Herndon) from 1993 to 1998. He has released 10 solo records on the Bloodshot, Geffen, Boondoggle (self), and Yep Roc labels, including the influential early alt-country records Country Love Songs (1996) and South Mouth (1997), and the widely acclaimed Georgia Hard (2005).

His 11th record, Gone Away Backward (2013), returned him to his bluegrass days and extends the boundaries of that tradition with old-time rambles and sparely orchestrated, acoustic reflections on love, the country life, the slings of time, and the struggles of common people. His new album Upland Stories (2016) continues this tradition with the additional of drums and several electric instruments. Both albums were recorded by Steve Albini.

Connect with Fulks online and on the road.