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Robbie Fulks is a singer, recording artist, instrumentalist, composer, and songwriter. His current release, Bluegrass Vacation on Compass Records, returns him to his bluegrass roots, with a large group of masterful musicians including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Justin Moses, Ronnie McCoury, Alison Brown, David Grier, Tim O’Brien, Todd Phillips, John Cowan, Brennen Leigh, Randy Kohrs, Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, Shad Cobb, and Chris Eldridge. Across 11 new original songs (and one freewheeling interpretation of the Delmore Brothers), Robbie covers themes like small-town blues, the endurance of childhood memory, inebriation, love, divorce, the role of music in strengthening family bonds, losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s, and bluegrass itself.
His most recent release, 2017’s Upland Stories, earned year’s-best recognition from NPR and Rolling Stone among many others, as well as two Grammy® nominations, for folk album and American roots song (“Alabama At Night”).
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. He attended Columbia College in New York City.
In 1983 he moved to Chicago and joined Greg Cahill’s Special Consensus Bluegrass Band. He taught music at Old Town School of Folk Music from 1984 to 1996, and worked as a staff songwriter on Music Row in Nashville from 1993 to 1998.
His early solo work — Country Love Songs (1996) and South Mouth (1997) — helped define the “alternative country” movement of the 1990s. For most of the present century, Robbie has been playing acoustic music through microphones, which lets him give more attention to his flatpicking and banjo playing, and complements his more sepia-toned subject matter — the slings of time, the troubles of common people. His repertory of traveling players includes folks like Shad Cobb, Missy Raines, Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Matt Flinner, Don Stiernberg, and Jesse Cobb. However, two non-acoustic recent side projects are his 2018 duo record with Linda Gail Lewis, Wild! Wild! Wild!, an NPR favorite which leans to rock-and-roll and classic country-and-western, and his double-vinyl reinterpretation of the Bob Dylan record Street-Legal, which is titled 16, is musically unbounded and is no one’s favorite.
Radio: multiple appearances on WSM’s “Grand Ole Opry”; PRI’s “Whadd’ya Know”; NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Mountain Stage,” and “World Cafe”; and the syndicated “Acoustic Cafe” and “Laura Ingraham Show.” TV: PBS’s Austin City Limits; NBC’s Today, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Later with Carson Daly, and 30 Rock. From 2004 to 2008 he hosted an hourlong performance/interview program for XM satellite radio, “Robbie’s Secret Country.” Artists who have covered his songs include Sam Bush, Kelly Hogan, Andrew Bird, Mollie O’Brien, Rosie Flores, John Cowan, and Old 97s.
Robbie’s writing on music and life have appeared in GQ, Blender, the Chicago Reader, DaCapo Press’s Best Music Writing anthologies for 2001 and 2004, Amplified: Fiction from Leading Alt-Country, Indie Rock, Blues and Folk Musicians, and A Guitar and A Pen: Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters. As an instrumentalist, he has accompanied the Irish fiddle master Liz Carroll, the distinguished jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, and the New Orleans pianist Dr. John. As a producer his credits include Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck (Sugar Hill, 2004) and Big Thinkin’ by Dallas Wayne (Hightone, 2000). Theatrical credits include “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” and Harry Chapin’s “Cottonpatch Gospel.” He served twice as judge for the Winfield National Flatpicking Guitar competition. He tours yearlong with various configurations.
Besides country and bluegrass music, Robbie is fiercely fond of Charles Mingus, P.G. Wodehouse, quantum mechanics, his wife Donna, comedy in almost all forms, cooking, swimming laps, the past, Arthur Schopenhauer, Universal horror movies, his grandson and even his sons, coastal towns in the off-season, and rye whiskey, though in nothing like that order.
Americana/folk stalwart Slaid Cleaves has been putting out highly acclaimed records for 25 years now, consistently delivering songs that strike people’s hearts and become part of their lives. Together Through the Dark is no different. Producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb and Cleaves teamed up for the third time in early 2022 between Covid surges to record a new batch of songs, Slaid’s first in five years. Familiar themes of struggle and resilience will be a surprise to no one. As Scrappy puts it, “This album speaks to the hopeful, the hard working, the battered, confused, and the sad. But above all to the believers in the city of freedom that we heard in the stories of our youth and all those FM radio hits.” Watch for single releases to radio and streaming services in early 2023 in anticipation of a March 3rd worldwide album release.
Joseph Hudak of Rolling Stone Country calls Cleaves “a master storyteller, one influenced not by the shine of pop-culture but by the dirt of real life.”
The music of Texas-based singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves is rooted in traditional country and folk forms, but is distinct enough to have held interest amidst a sea of singer/songwriters since the 1990s. While he released a handful of recordings during the early ’90s, he gained significant notice with No Angel Knows, which was released on Rounder’s Philo subsidiary in 1997. Joined by former Lucinda Williams guitarist and producer Gurf Morlix, Cleaves combined his interest in folk songs, early rock and roll, and traditional country music into an amalgamation of styles becoming known at that time as Americana. Not surprisingly, the album rode high into the charts at Americana-formatted radio stations across the U.S. and Canada that year and set the tone for the rest of his career.
In his hometown of South Berwick, Maine, Cleaves began playing keyboards in garage bands while still in high school. His first band, founded in 1980 by childhood friend Rod Picott, was dubbed The Magic Rats. After the lead singer was kicked out of his next band, The Classifieds, Cleaves started singing cover songs behind his Hammond Porta-B organ in local road houses, hotel lounges and bowling alleys while still in his teens. After reading in Rolling Stone about Bruce Springsteen’s inspirations for the Nebraska album, he climbed into his parents’ attic to rediscover the treasure trove of albums which he recalled hearing as a child – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry – and which became guides to the budding songwriter. While in college, where he studied English and philosophy, he learned a few guitar chords and spent a school year in Ireland, where he began to write and sing his own songs and joined the league of buskers on the streets of Cork.
After a few post-college years in Portland, Maine, fronting the alt-country band, The Moxie Men, Cleaves and future wife and business partner Karen set out on a career adventure, moving to Austin in late 1991. Despite the echelon of acclaimed singer-songwriters like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely, all centered around the Austin scene at the time, Cleaves was eventually able to make a name for himself there. In 1996, he began his collaboration with Morlix, who liked Cleaves’ homemade demo tape and ended up serving as producer for five albums, starting with 1997’s No Angel Knows.
During the following decade Cleaves began touring relentlessly throughout North America, the UK, and the Netherlands, while releasing three more acclaimed albums, starting with the career-defining Broke Down in 2000, followed by Wishbones (2004) and then a collection of covers of friends’ songs, Unsung (2006). With an eclectic, bare-bones combo he was well received at major folk festivals including, Newport Folk Festival, Cambridge Folk Festival, Strawberry Music Festival, and Kerrville Folk Festival (where he had been a “New Folk” winner in 1992).
After signing with Jimmy LaFave’s Music Road Records, he issued Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away (2009, featuring liner notes from fan Stephen King), the two-disc Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge (2011), and Still Fighting the War (2013), produced by beloved Austin guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb. The title song was inspired in part by Craig F. Walker’s Pulitzer-winning photo-essay depicting a Marine’s harrowing return to civilian life. The album was praised as “one of the year’s best albums” by American Songwriter and “carefully crafted, . . . songs about the struggles of the heart in hard times” by the Wall Street Journal. The New York Daily News called his music “a treasure hidden in plain sight,” while the Austin Chronicle declared, “there are few contemporaries that compare. He’s become a master craftsman on the order of Guy Clark and John Prine.”
2017’s Ghost on the Car Radio, on his own Candy House Media label, found Cleaves teaming up with Mr. Newcomb for a second time to present an album of vivid snapshots of regular folks dreaming, loving, scraping by and getting old in small town America.