The funny thing is Robbie Fulks can be serious, too

Robbie Fulks
Andy Goodwin
Robbie Fulks

In 1936, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans ventured into the impoverished American South with the aim of recording their experience with its inhabitants. The resulting book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” was released to acclaim in 1941. Evans wrote years later that Agee was a strong judge of character: “[Agee had] an ingrained courtesy, an uncourtly courtesy that emanated from him towards everyone, perhaps excepting the smugly rich, the pretentiously genteel. . . . [H]uman beings were at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls.”

Much the same can be said of country singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, whose songs — often irreverent, sometimes sad, always perceptive about the human condition — contain the same empathy.

Fulks’s most recent record, last year’s Grammy-nominated “Upland Stories,” had its roots in the work of Agee and Evans. Fulks began the album with “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” as its inspiration, working with playwright and screenwriter Brian Yorkey (whose credits include the Broadway hit “Next to Normal” and the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”) to create a musical based on the book. That musical didn’t pan out, but its inspiration remained.


Fulks, who performs at Club Passim on Tuesday, says he was particularly interested in the book’s “idea of suffering in the land of plenty, and how to document it.”

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Ultimately, says Fulks, the narrative perspective was too hard to suss out for a musical.

“Did I presume to write from the perspective of the struggling people, or did I write from an omniscient third-person point of view? I just ended up being unsure about how to navigate that.”

Instead, a few songs from the project became the germ of “Upland Stories,” an album that recalls Agee and Evans’s compassion for the economic and social underdog.

Fulks’s songs are often hysterically funny while remaining humane and honest, but that humor (aside from the gentle ribbing of “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man”) is intentionally absent from “Upland Stories.” Perhaps inevitably, many critics wrote that the album marked Fulks’s moment of growing up (“With his old-timey ‘Upland Stories,’ Fulks matures into an important voice,” wrote Paste’s Holly Gleason, adding that Fulks is “now seriously middle-aged”).


Fulks, once the writer of irreverent songs such as “Rock Bottom, Pop. 1,” the jubilantly proud “I Told Her Lies,” and a kiss-off to Nashville whose title boasts an f-bomb as its first word, says he understands why that narrative exists.

“The funny stuff either people love the most or it almost invalidates the more serious stuff. If it’s on the same record with more serious stuff, it seems to rise and swamp the rest of the record, the two goofy songs,” he says. “I understand that. I didn’t understand it at first, but I’m more sympathetic to it now, the idea that you should present yourself more or less seriously if you want to be taken seriously. It’s maybe a little unfortunate that it’s that way, but it is that way, and I’m more or less comfortable with that as a reality.”

That mix of heartfelt and silly — often within the same two-minute song — is what attracted Yorkey to his work.

“His writing is so deeply human,” says Yorkey over e-mail. “It’s literate without being the slightest bit pretentious; it’s clever while also being funny, which is a huge trick. It’s musically accessible while also being sophisticated, which is another trick.”

Yorkey, citing himself as the source of the musical’s delay (“I was busy and slow, as I usually am, and Robbie is busy and fast, and shot out ahead of me writing brilliant songs”) says he hopes that the elusive production will still happen.


“He writes effortlessly from many points of view, capturing character and situation, dramatizing stories and not just telling them. Swear to God, I think he was born to write a musical, and I am determined to write one with him before we’re both done.”

In the meantime, Fulks is simply happy to bring his songs to Club Passim, a venue he’s played many times over the years.

“It’s always a full house, for one thing,” says Fulks. “People sit there and listen. And,” he added, as a compliment to Passim manager Matt Smith, “there’s an intelligence and welcome-ness that comes down from the top.”

So now that Fulks’s recorded work has become noticeably serious, has his stage persona — a fiery, funny storyteller with stand-up comedy aspirations — followed suit?

“I can’t be po-faced for an hour and a half,” says Fulks with a chuckle. “Laughter is always a sign that you’re engaging and they’re listening and it’s working to some extent. If no sound is heard, then I’m just never sure what’s going on. I think laughter is a good way of cementing them to you and having them on your side.”


At Club Passim, Cambridge, Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25, 617-492-7679,

David Brusie can be reached at