WHEN SPIN magazine's website premiered Robbie Fulks' new album, Gone Away Backward, it did so under an eye-catching description of the Chicago singer/songwriter: "50-year-old tunesmith."
When reminded of that plainly age-focused language, Fulks laughs. "I did notice that," he says in a telephone interview. "Is a middle-aged singer really that much of a novelty to the readers of that site? I don't know. I think it might be. I certainly don't mind my age being mentioned."
To be fair to the young whippersnappers at Spin, Fulks' age was a key factor in the sonic shift of Backward, the most folksy, acoustic thing he's recorded since he cut his teeth as a guitarist in the Special Consensus bluegrass band in the late 1980s.
In between, Fulks has gained renown as one of the sharpest and most stylistically diverse songwriters in American roots music. His first two solo albums, both for Bloodshot Records, established him as an alt-country mega-talent. His third album, the pop-rock powerhouse Let's Kill Saturday Night, was an excellent—and unfairly maligned—major-label move. Since, he has dabbled in experimental rock and '70s-inspired countrypolitan music, paid tribute to forgotten greats of traditional country, and released an album of Michael Jackson covers.
Two years ago, however, Fulks found himself tiring of the electrified twang he'd been making for many years. "I was ready for a change from that," he says. "So I started playing [in duos and trios], and the common thread was always that the audience was sitting down and often we were sitting down, and there was a microphone in front of the guitar rather than a cord coming from it. The new music I was writing kind of worked that folkier angle and had characters talking about their lives in their little towns. And that just kind of clicked for me.
"It felt right for a guy my age to be doing that," Fulks continues, "instead of the other thing. It felt like I was connecting myself into an older tradition in music."
Gone Away Backward has earned some of the best reviews of Fulks' career, and that's saying something given the critical adoration heaped upon his early work. Paste magazine called it "a tour de force of bluegrass-derived spare country."
After more than two decades in the business—including a famously failed stint as a cog in the Nashville hit machinery—Fulks knows when to let others' opinions in and when to let them roll off his back. "For some reason, I tend to assume that they're correct," he says with a chuckle. "When there's a positive reaction, I assume the record actually is a little bit better than the others."