Artist Robbie Fulks likes a lively mealtime conversation, and if we judged him by his own criteria, he'd make a hands-down excellent dinner guest.
The special Fulks blend of biting humor, intelligence and sincerity is as apparent in his music as it is over the phone -- and that's exactly where HuffPost caught up with him (as he was eating, no less) for a recent interview.
"I've been trying to be interesting, well-spoken, and on point when talking to journalists on the phone. But it doesn't come natural to me, and it's an area I've been working on for a lot of years," Fulks recently wrote on his personal blog (which is worth bookmarking).
Fulks might make a modest assessment of himself, but fans and critics are far more effusive.
The release is the twelfth in Fulks' discography, which includes covers of country songs by underappreciated greats of the genre and a Michael Jackson tribute record. "Gone Away Backward" is by Fulks' own admission, is the most "country" sounding album he's done in a while.
"When people ask me what I do, my neighbors, and people at my son's school, I just say "country," Fulks recently told HuffPost in a phone interview. "I would call this record "acoustic country" which is almost like saying bluegrass. So maybe I'd call this record "almost bluegrass."
As a country singer in the sprawling metropolis of Chicago, Fulks said he's "a little bit of a fish out of water."
"When I think about it analytically, I think it's something to be explained a little bit, like "why do you live in a place like this and make music like that?" I feel like I was fully-formed by the time I got here. I was formed brain-wise and music-wise. I don't feel like the city has changed me in some fundamental way, but the people I met here and the working environment have had an influence on me."
Citing artists like Steve Albini (who produced "Gone Away Backwards") and The Hoyle Brothers, Fulks said he draws from "all points of view" in the Chicago music community. At the same time, when going after a special sound, Fulks said Chicago's lack of country artists can pose challenges, too.
"I don't know where to look for a Vassar Clements-style fiddle player. There are certain slots I can't seem to fill," Fulks said, adding, "That phenomenon of not finding exactly what I need and things being slightly beyond my field of knowledge gives me potential for growth."
As Fulks begins his new tour in support of "Gone Away Backward" -- kicking off with a Friday evening performance at The Old Town School Of Folk Music -- we asked Fulks about his Windy City favorites in our latest "My Chicago."
Where in the city do you live and how long have you lived there? Wilmette, for eight years. I moved to Chicago when I was 20 or 21, in 1983.
I moved out of the city in 1995. [My wife and I] were in Logan Square, but our house kind of got shot up. And we were thinking of having kids anyway; we were going to do the bourgeois thing. But then we took some bullets to our apartment and we thought "let's get out of here." It seems to have changed a lot near Lula and that other trendy restaurant around there.
Our place was $750 a month and it was a 3-bedroom, quite big first floor apartment near Kimball on Fullerton. It was great.
It seems like a lot of the city on the North and West Side has just gotten progressively better over the years, but there are these recalcitrant pockets.
What is your age? What is your occupation? I'm 50 and I'm a musician.
What was your first job in Chicago? Jack-of-all-trades at an economic newsletter in Northbrook. I swept the floor and stocked the closet. What do you call that job? "Boy?" Maybe Assistant Office Manager.
When I lived in the city, I was a paralegal at Jenner and Block. I was there, oh God, like three years I think. I was trying to make music at the time. I came here because I had a kid born here and took that job to support my family. I played at places like Holstein's once in a while. But I was a paralegal from '83 to '87.
Which Chicago "celebrity" -- living or dead, real or fictional -- would you have over for dinner? What would you talk about? That should be an easy one to answer! How 'bout that guy that wrote that fake Rahm Emanuel Twitter feed? [Ed. note: Dan Sinker] Or Dan Clowes. Does he still live here? I don't know how I'd choose. I'd flip a Dan coin. I like listening to people better than talking, so I think a good dinner companion is someone who keeps you laughing too hard to keep you from digging into your plate and getting fat. I'd have a Dan over and just let him talk.
Where is your favorite place for a nightcap? I would say Marie's Rip Tide. That's not there anymore is it? I hadn't been back in years, because she was still alive when I was there. I can't imagine it has 100 percent of its charm since she died. So, I'd say The Green Mill. How cliched of an answer is that? [laughs]. I could live in New York and say this shit! "The Willis Tower is a great place to go!"
Where is your favorite place to grab brunch?
How about Lula Cafe.
What are your go-to spots when you have visitors in town? Lula, Second City. I mean, my answers are so f---ing cliche! But to tell you the truth, part of it is, our friend started and runs Lula; we have friends working at Second City. It's kind of going where we're welcomed and where they know us. But institutionally, it's weird to say these places. Lately, Little Goat has been a favorite of mine. If there's a show late at night at it ends at 10 or 11 p.m., that place always seems to be open. And the kimchee veggie burger is amazing.
What is the last cultural event you saw in the city? When [Riccardo] Muti was conducting at Pritzker I took my kids. That felt like a long time ago. But say "Muti at Pritzker." That makes me sound like a real fancy guy.
If you had to have your last Chicago meal for some tragic reason, where and what would it be? Kimchee veggie burger at Little Goat. Or! The oatmeal shake at Irazu.
Cubs or Sox? Oh, definitely the White Sox. I don't know shit about sports. I hate sports, as a matter of fact. But the White Sox have me in to sing maybe twice a season, to come in and do the anthem. And then when I wear the shirts -- I have a Sox shirt that says "Fulks" on the back -- when my kids wear the shirts to school they get bullied. So I know they're the right team because these f---ing North Shore snobs can't stand the sight of the shirt.
Wicker Park, 1993 or Wicker Park, 2013? Oh. Come on! 1993 all the way! It was different then. It's wrong to glamorize danger, and I like success as much as the next guy, but ... every time I go down there and I see one of those people in tight black jeans crossing the street with his chin in the air, I just want to f---ing run him over. Those people drive me crazy.
Chicago-style hot dog, Chicago-style pizza or Chicago-style politics? Oh, pizza all the way. I don't eat hot dogs. And I don't eat politics. And politicians? I don't think they'd be interesting or any fun to have over for dinner. And I love pizza. As far as eating politicians? I don't know. Maybe [former Chicago Mayor] Jane Byrne.
What advice would you give to a new Chicago transplant? I would say: Don't go outdoors in the winter and don't try to start a business.
What do you miss the most when you're not in Chicago? I miss my children!
If you could change just one thing about our fair city what would it be? Parking. That new parking system is kind of a pain in the ass.
Describe Chicago in one word: "Somewhat overweight"? No, that's two words. G--dammit. "Portly."
In 1951's "Chicago: City on the Make," Nelson Algren wrote: "Once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." Through My Chicago, HuffPost is discussing what, to this day, makes the patch we call home so lovely and so broken with some of the city's most compelling characters.