Robbie Fulks: Master of the Alt-Country Scene Branches Out

Robbie Fulks (photo by Simon Tacchi)

Robbie Fulks is a true country renaissance artist. During the past 30 years, the singer-songwriter and virtuoso instrumentalist has released 16 excellent records in a variety of styles, from neo-traditionalist to honky-tonk, rockabilly, insurgent country, bluegrass, classic C&W, hillbilly, Western swing, mainstream, old-time classics, and everything in between (or even at the fringes). He’s also rocked out and done full-length album covers of Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan, and produced an award-winning tribute anthology to the late Johnny Paycheck.

Fulks also has a sense of humor a mile wide and just as broad. Critics frequently compare him to Roger Miller, whose eccentric comedic streak made him one of country music’s biggest hitmakers during the 1960s. Except that Fulks has had a sharper wit and a slicker vibe, especially when he was first starting out, with songs like “Fuck This Town” (about Nashville) and “She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died).”

Over the years, Fulks’s music has become more serious, especially on the 2016 record Upland Stories, which was Grammy-nominated for Best Folk Album, and the song “Alabama at Night,” Grammy-nominated for Best American Roots Song. On his most recent disc, Bluegrass Vacation (2023), he sings and plays both guitar and banjo with some of the genre’s most notable pickers.

“One of the first spoons in the coffee cup of my cerebrum when I was a young child was bluegrass,” Fulks said, over the phone. He had just returned to the United States from Spain, where he and various members of his family had gone on the pilgrimage to Santiago. Fulks said his first professional gigs included teaching bluegrass at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and as a member of the bluegrass band Special Consensus.

He’ll be playing songs from the bluegrass album when he comes to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on June 2, as well as songs from his varied catalog. Nashville fiddler Christian Settlemeyer will join him. Although a full string band accompanies Fulks on the record, Fulks notes it’s not necessary for an in-person performance. “Christian is a great singer and player,” he said. “We do the harmonies vocally and instrumentally so that the songs sound rich and full even without drums or a steel guitar.” That type of improvising with whomever is in the band at the moment is part of the heritage of live bluegrass.

On Fulks’s website (, the musician lists the Englert show this way: “RF back in Iowa City, fiiiiiinally.” He said that it has been decades since he performed in Iowa City (at Gabe’s and The Mill) and looks forward to coming back. “I’ve always enjoyed Iowa City,” said the Chicago-based artist, “but I just haven’t had any good offers to come. I am looking forward to playing in a classy venue.” He said this sincerely, and commended Gabe’s continued existence.

While Fulks has recorded in a variety of country and folk styles, not to mention rock, there is something about his music that makes his records distinctively his. His personality sticks out in the best way, so no matter what genre he chooses, the music sounds fresh. “I don’t consciously do that, but I understand what you mean,” he said. “It could be that the songs are all sung by a guy in the same voice. I know what chord progressions and other concepts work well with my vocals. This affects how I write and perform.” But it is more than that. There’s a sensibility and intelligence that shows itself no matter what he’s singing about, whether it’s a young buck trying to get a date or an old man at a nursing home remembering family life, political changes or personal desires, God or godlessness.

Fulks said he’s not very good at keeping up with current trends, but he finds the new Sierra Ferrell album Trail of Flowers terrific and looks forward to Beyonce’s new country release, Cowboy Carter. Although he has not heard Beyonce’s record, he understands that she covers both Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” This reveals a new trend that harkens back to his youth, when artists like the Beatles would include a variety of styles on one record. Ferrell successfully does the same thing. Fulks is already plotting to do this on his next disc.

“Ferrell and Beyonce also are good examples of a beneficial change in country music. They are both women, a group who traditionally has been marginalized in the mainstream. The more voices, the more stories, the better—especially when they come from ones who were previously outsiders.” He noted there were many more female artists he could name whose inclusion has deepened and invigorated the genre. Country music has always been energized by new voices. He cited Bob Dylan going country in 1968 as one famous example and said there were many cases over the years.

When Fulks started recording back in the 1990s, he was considered an outsider. His music was often labeled alternative. Both his music and the mainstream have changed. “Thirty years ago, my conception of country was more limited to the old stuff, especially pre-1950. I have grown to appreciate artists like Gene Watson and Bill Anderson, and this has had an impact on my own songwriting.”

Fulks considers himself a country artist today and is not embarrassed to say so, nor does he limit himself to being just one type of musician. He embraces the current diversity of styles accessible to both artists and listeners.