Words are currency to Fulks, for better or worse
Songwriter’s songwriter is a term of endearment for a person who composes music for a living.
Chances are, however, the recipient of that praise would trade it for a bucket of cash and a larger audience. Or at least the opportunity to pursue those possibilities.
That seems to be the opinion of Robbie Fulks, who has been writing critically acclaimed tunes for the better part of 30 years and has earned his first Grammy nominations for his latest album, “Upland Stories” – Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song (“Alabama By Night”).
“I think that to the extent that the focus is all on the music and the records in my little dog and pony show, then it is kind of a story or success,” laughs Fulks, who plays the Folk School Coffee Parlor in Ludlow Saturday. “But I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture (of the attention) because I’m still not rich or famous or anything like that. This stuff doesn’t exactly correspond to record sales.”
“Upland Stories” has introduced Fulks to a wider audience. Critics Ann Powers of NPR Music and Ken Tucker of “Fresh Air” put it in their top 10 albums of 2016. The notoriously contrary singer has even hired a manager to explore new opportunities. But a prime-time guest spot seems like a stretch for the man who wrote “(Expletive) This Town” about Nashville in 1997, listing his frustrations with the ways of Music City.
“In retrospect, that may have been a strategic error,” Fulks says, laughing again. “But that was keeping with my point of view at the time and of the (record) label with what they wanted to put out. When nobody knows you, it’s good to make waves sometimes.”
Depending upon one’s point of view, waves equate to principle as well as turmoil. Fulks is a lifelong student of songwriting who was probably best known for what he calls his “jittery” music that was “fun and (had) superficial lyrics. And I love music like that and I love lyrics like that. A lot of my lot of my favorite songs are Leiber and Stoller, and Buck Owens and people like that.
“But at a certain point I started to think, man, I like books and fiction and literature and I had been holding off on modeling my lyrics from some of those influences simply because of an anti-pretentious impulse when I also like writers who do that. When it’s done well, it’s magnificent. So I thought maybe I would dip a toe into that water … because it seemed like I was holding back a potential strength from my lyrics.”
Those lyrics are center stage on “Upland Stories” and his previous album, “Gone Away Backward.”
“I think it’s been pushed to the front because of the instrumentation largely,” Fulks says. “It’s quiet instrumentation, and my voice and the lyrics and stories are right up front in the mix so it’s hard to turn away.”
That decision has turned out to be a strategic success if one is keeping score by award nominations, if not fame and fortune – yet.
Robbie Fulks sings “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man”