Alt-country songwriter Robbie Fulks to play Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre
Throughout his decades-long career, alternative country musician Robbie Fulks has largely followed his instincts.
He has explored multiple genres, earned a reputation as a prodigious and eloquent songwriter, delighted audiences with dexterous guitar work and released 12 solo records, the latest of which secured him two Grammy nominations.
Fulks will perform during an evening of music that starts at 8 p.m. Friday in the Chandelier Lobby of the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre. New York-based folk artist Brian Dunne will open in support.
A York native, Fulks spent most of his formative years in other parts of southern Pennsylvania, the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and the Piedmont area of North Carolina — locations with rich histories of American roots music.
“The bluegrass music and other rooted country music traditions are really strong down there in Pa.,” Fulks said.
With bluegrass greats like Del McCoury and Chris Warner hailing from the region, Fulks said he grew up watching such expert practitioners on a Saturday morning television program called “Here Comes the Sheriff.”
“It underscored for me that bluegrass music was living and it was local,” Fulks said.
Taught to play guitar by his father and banjo by mimicking John Hartford and Earl Scruggs records, Fulks was picking away as early as age 7.
Enrolling in classes at Columbia University (then Columbia College) took him to New York City in 1980, but by 1982, Fulks had already dropped out and immersed himself in the Greenwich Village songwriting culture.
In 1983, Fulks followed a girlfriend to Chicago and has since been a resident.
When Fulks arrived in the Windy City, the folk movement spearheaded by John Prine and Steve Goodman in the 1970s had slowed, but Fulks found a “real strong outpost,” the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he began working as an instructor.
He also became a member of the nationally renowned Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, but it was the electrified country music of the 1940s and ’50s that occupied Fulks’ well of inspiration in the ’90s.
“I was freshly smitten with it at the time,” he said.
Released in 1996 and ‘97 respectively, “Country Love Songs” and “South Mouth” established Fulks as an alt-country trailblazer.
As a staff songwriter for Nashville’s Music Row, he created songs for the likes of Tim McGraw and Joe Diffie.
His 2005 album “Georgia Hard” was lauded by critics, and his 2013 effort, “Gone Away Backward” revisited his bluegrass roots.
“Now that I’m doing something more acoustic the last eight or nine years, I got back to someplace that I had been previously,” Fulks said. “I got back to 7 or 8 years old, playing banjo in the living room.”
“Georgia Hard” was named one of Rolling Stone’s 10 Best Country Albums of 2013, and Fulks’ most recent, “Upland Stories” has kept the momentum going with its Grammy nods.
The album’s opening track “Alabama at Night” is based on writer James Agee’s trip to Alabama, on assignment for Fortune magazine, to spend time with sharecroppers — a journey that would be the impetus for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
“It’s a meditation on American poverty and how you might document it by turning it into a museum piece to interest the privileged urban dweller who might otherwise move on,” Fulks said.
The graceful, folky treatment of the song is contrasted by the country ballad of “Sarah Jane” and the old timey bluegrass of “America is a Hard Religion.”
Throughout “Upland Stories,” Fulks approaches the styles of great country and folk musicians who came before him, but he’s not aiming for any sound in particular.
“I feel when I’m writing these tunes, I’m kind of in the dark,” Fulks said. “You throw out a line and you doodle around and you throw out placeholder words and you’re not sure what you’re doing yet.”
Parts of songs, Fulks said, remind him of Dave Van Ronk and Loudon Wainwright, but he tries to ignore those flashes of parallelism so they don’t bog down his creative process.
What drives him is the push to “keep from doing exactly what I did on the last song or record.”
“If it feels new and different and like I’m on uncertain ground, it’s a sign I’m getting somewhere, and I press on with it.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or on Twitter @TimesLeaderMatt.
IF YOU GO
What: Robbie Fulks with special guest Brian Dunne
Where: F.M. Kirby Center, 71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Additional information: Tickets cost $15 in advance and $20 the day of the show and are available at the Kirby Center box office, online at kirbycenter.org and by phone at 570-826-1100.