Robbie Fulks’ seamless Gone Away Backward backs original working-class ballads (“I’ll Trade You Money for Wine”) with carefully chosen traditional songs (“Snake Charmer’s Tune”). The result: A potent and powerful roots music masterwork.
“I read that it’s a small-town record,” Fulks says. “The narrators and characters aren’t rich and are either disappointed in how things worked out for them or just resignedly, wearily coming to terms about how reality has worked out for them.”
CMT Edge: Explain the album title, Gone Away Backward.
Fulks: Well, it’s from the first chapter of Isaiah where God is talking to Israel about his displeasure. He says, “You’re gone away backward” and these other pungent phrases. When you’re at a loss, go to the Bible for a good pungent phrase for your record. That’s the go-to source.
How do these new songs represent your evolution as a songwriter?
I’ve been working toward being more of myself as a songwriter. I think I’ve had a gift for mimicry over the years, and I’ve enjoyed parodying song styles and I’ve luxuriated in trying to imitate — or at least get the feeling of — people I strongly admire in music. At the same time, I’m realizing that that’s a bit of a handicap. It’s been a long process over the last 20 years of trying to indulge in that but also break away from that in something that’s more unique that other guys don’t do. Hopefully, I’ve realized that more on this record than most of what I’ve done.
Tell the story behind writing “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine.”
The guy singing it lives in Nevada. I like writing from that point of view where it’s a little bit shaky as far as how much of a grip the character has on reality. I think he’s one of those people who talks to you on the street and maybe every fourth or fifth sentence makes some kind of sense based in empirical reality. (laughs) The rest of it is raving.
In my mind, the guy telling the story actually did work in the copper mines and is an ex-miner who’s dispossessed for one reason or another. Maybe he’s a little drunk. He’s out in the street talking about how good the old times were. I think his essential point is, “I’ll trade all the riches you’ve got and this great life you’ve got for the ability to get drunk and feel good momentarily.” It’s kind of a chilling view point, but I don’t think you have to go to a great mental flight to put yourself in the position of a guy like that.
What drew you to “Snake Chapman’s Tune”?
I was working quite a lot with [fiddler] Jenny Scheinman in 2009 and 2010, and we did different fiddle tunes in our act. That’s such a simple fiddle tune, it’s almost like playing nothing — like playing a scale. There’s also something weirdly entrancing about it, and that was the inspiration for making a trance out of it on the record.
You wrote on your website that you prefer being “a 50-year-old veteran over a 33-year-old gatecrasher.” Explain.
Well, I felt like I was in a strong position when I first came out. I didn’t get any bad reviews. It seemed like everything was happening all at once after my first record came out. Within a couple weeks, I was getting calls from big companies. I had a choice of different labels to choose from for what was to be my third record and only major label record. For a short while there, I had the world coming together for me, but I didn’t like it that much. (laughs)
In retrospect, I was kind of stressed out over it. I think I like being the older guy. It’s not because of not having anything to prove, but I like being a little more relaxed about everything and being able to write from the point of view of experience. It opens up an easy avenue as a writer. It’s obnoxious when you’re young: “Let me tell you about my great experience.” When you’ve got gray hairs and wrinkles and everything, it’s a very natural point of view to write from and I think it’s more authentic.
You need experience to write “That’s Where I’m From,” for sure.
On that one, I took the liberty of putting in autobiographical details, which I guess I’ve also been freer to do in recent years. I did that on my tune “Georgia Hard” and on another song on this new record, “Sometimes the Grass Is Really Greener.” It’s not exactly autobiography, but I think to put actual details you’ve lived though makes the song easier to sing with conviction and probably easier to listen to, as opposed to singing about living my life in the salt mines.
I sing about my dad’s guitar in the one song, and I played my dad’s guitar for a long time. I sing about states I grew up in — Virginia and North Carolina. I sing about those two places a lot. I sing about the experience of growing up relatively poor and then making more money. Then you raise kids, and they turn out to have different values from you, and you look back upon the times that you lived through and tried to extricate yourself from with a bittersweet feeling later in life. All that stuff happened to me, even though I’m not exactly the guy in that song.
Explain why you started performing unplugged.
I do it absolutely any time I can. I really don’t like plugging in. I don’t like the sound of it. I’ll do it as a necessity to project over the drums, but I don’t like the sound of it. I guess I’ve done that all my life. I started that way when I started playing out at clubs in the late ’70s. I started as a solo act playing into a microphone. I did get away from that for a while, from the mid-’90s through the mid-aughts. But when I started doing it more in 2008 and 2009, I found that I missed it a lot. It’s my favorite thing to do.