The mainstream finally embraces alt-country singer Robbie Fulks, but he still has beefs with Nashville

Mellow yeller

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For four years, alt-country singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks toiled away in Nashville at Songwriters Ink, a music publishing company that provided songs for Tim McGraw and Joe Diffie, among others. Eventually, Fulks tired of what he calls the “soft-rock feminist crap” he was surrounded by while trying to advance his own smartass honky-tonk sound.

And what a sound it is.

Fulks is one of those rare birds who can burn down a bad-boy tale like “I Told Her Lies” or a kiss-off like “Busy Not Cryin’” while also creating barroom heartbreak classics like “Heart, I Wish You Were Here.” He even penned a venomous goodbye to Music City with his 1997 song “F**k This Town.”

But over the years, Fulks has mellowed. At least musically.

His last two albums, “Gone Away Backward” and “Upland Stories,” are subdued ventures into bluegrass and folk balladry, leaning less on Fulks’ skill with sarcasm and more on his incisive storytelling and haunting way with a melody. “Upland Stories,” released in 2016, even garnered two Grammy nominations, the ultimate mainstream show of respect.

And Nashville has changed, too.

Once a haven for country music and little else, Music City has become a diverse mecca, culturally and musically. With a miles-deep community of session musicians and state-of-the-art studios, Nashville has become home for all kinds of artists from rock to soul to jazz and beyond.

So has Fulks, who will play at The Spinning Jenny in Greer this Tuesday, mellowed at all when it comes to his arch-nemesis town?

“I’m still an outsider,” Fulks says, “but the city’s changed radically since 1997. When I go down there to play and hang around, it seems to me that it’s changed for the better culturally. You go to east Nashville and there are these vegan restaurants and hipster ice cream places and these craft brewery places, and that’s reflected in the club scene, too. The old bluegrass place I’ve been playing for years is owned by Whole Foods. It’s insane compared to what it used to be.”

That sounds like a mixed, but honest, opinion. And how about the music?

“As far as the industry, going by what I hear on the radio stations, lyrically it’s gotten more permissive,” he says. “Stuff that I wasn’t able to get away with, like referring to a woman’s body parts or something slightly erotic, it’s a lot easier to get away with now. People have really opened up the realm of what you’re allowed to say.”

Wait for it, though: Fulks has more to say.

“At the same time, though, the awfulness of the music seems to have gotten worse,” he says. “The performance quality of it and the level of intelligence at which it’s aimed is kind of depressing to me.”

But what about the new saviors of classic country, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson and their ilk? Fulks says he’s a fan, but remains a bit skeptical about their overall impact.

“Are those guys really bleeding into what you think of as the mainstream?” he asks. “If I turn on the corporate country radio stations in Dallas or Chicago, will I hear them? I just don’t know. But it’s absolutely great to hear people like Chris Stapleton, who’s a genius singer and can demonstrate that just as well sitting in your living room as he can in an arena. A lot of the stars in the ’90s were a lesser version of that talent accompanied by image-making. Bullshit, in other words, which isn’t true of Chris or Sturgill.”

As for Fulks’ own career, how did his first-ever Grammy nominations (for Best Folk Album and Best Americana Roots Song) help his bottom line? He probably started selling a few more concert tickets at least, right?

“You’d really wish that, wouldn’t you? But no,” Fulks says with a laugh. “Of course, it’s the first time it’s ever happened to me, so I don’t know if I’m exploiting it as expertly as I should be. I’m discovering it as I go along.”

Robbie Fulks

The Spinning Jenny, 107 Cannon St., Greer
Tuesday, June 20, 7 p.m.
$15 in advance/$18 door
864-469-6416 // thespinningjennygreer.com

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