Guitar virtuoso Robin Bullock celebrates 30-year career on new retrospective

CANIS LUPUS CONNECTION: From the paw prints on his guitar's fretboard to the name of his new retrospective album, Robin Bullock resonates with wolf symbology and embraces the feeling of being a "stranger in a strange land" that is life as a musician. Photo by Leea Gorell

Robin Bullock is not the biggest fan of compilation albums.

“I’m kind of inherently distrustful of [them],” says the Black Mountain-based multi-instrumentalist and composer. “Especially when they call themselves ‘Best Of’ or ‘Greatest Hits’ because that leads to hierarchical thinking: ‘These tracks are better than any of the other tracks from the albums they were taken from.’”

That sentiment is part of why Bullock used the subtitle “A Retrospective” for his new album, Wolf Tracks, which looks back at his past 30 years of recording. The album spotlights a range of Celtic, Americana, baroque, Renaissance and original music featuring acoustic guitar, mandolin and cittern — a Renaissance-era stringed instrument that’s similar to a lute but slightly smaller. And he’ll celebrate the collection with a CD release concert at White Horse Black Mountain on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 8 p.m.

Bullock says it feels “terrifying” to have reached the point in his life and career where a retrospective seems appropriate. And he’s been avoiding taking the plunge for as long as possible.

“But when I realized last year that it was the 30th anniversary of my first solo album, I thought, ‘OK, the time has come,’” Bullock says. “And, actually, I’m glad I did because my last few albums have all been kind of folk and a lot of my albums in general have been focused on a particular repertoire or a particular instrument. So when somebody is new to my music and they say, ‘Where should I start?’ it’s always kind of a hard question to answer.”

Now Bullock has one CD that covers his diverse career and offers a solid entry point.

Tough calls

Bullock describes narrowing the collection to its eventual 19 tracks as a “tricky” process.

“Some of my favorite solo finger-style guitar tracks I’ve just had to reluctantly leave out because I already had enough of those,” he says.

The decision was less painful, in part, thanks to his 2015 album The Carolan Collection — a compilation of his recordings of the music by 17th-century Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan. Bullock didn’t want to repeat any of those tunes on Wolf Tracks. Similarly, he resisted picking winter holiday music, despite his many fans who look forward to his performances at the annual Swannanoa Solstice showcases.

MR. RELIABLE: Robin Bullock’s playing style and recording techniques have remained fairly consistent over his 30-year career. Photo courtesy of the artist

“I’ve done two Christmas albums, too, and that’s some of my most popular stuff. But I knew I didn’t want any Christmas material on this because you don’t want to hear that in the middle of a retrospective any other time of year,” he says. “It’s not like this is a complete package. There are albums of mine that I didn’t touch on at all.”

Instead, Bullock prioritized work from his two active duos with guitarist Steve Baughman and Celtic harpist Sue Richards, as well as his collaborative work with Irish flutist Michel Sikiotakis when Bullock lived in France in the early 2010s. He also focused on duets with some of his favorite guitar players over the years, among them Tony McManus, John Doyle and Al Petteway.

“It definitely did bring back some memories,” Bullock says. “It highlighted those friendships, and that makes me smile. Whenever you’re going back through time, listening to your own recordings, it brings you back to where you were in your life at that point.”

Same as it ever was

Bullock opted for a largely chronological track list for Wolf Tracks and almost made it entirely sequential.

“I just realized it would be stronger if I started with something that is just a good opener, regardless of where it happened in the timeline, and then went back to the beginning and took it from there,” he says. “I like the idea of the journey through time and the development.”

Despite the diversity of musical traditions, there’s little on Wolf Tracks to distinguish Bullock’s evolution as an artist. Though quick to poke fun at his sonic consistency — “I don’t know if that means I got it right all along or if it means I just haven’t evolved,” he says with a laugh — he was also surprised by it and heartened by his younger self’s decisions.

“I listened to those early tracks and I think I probably would have done it more or less the same way,” he says. “I’ve definitely gotten more and more into the solo, intimate, stripped-down approach, since that’s what I do live for the most part — you know: one person, one instrument. So that’s why I wanted to make sure I had a reasonable amount of that on this album. But in the recording studio, you can multitrack and add different parts, so I wanted to show some of that as well.”

WILD SIDE: Robin Bullock explores his connection to wolves in various ways. Photo courtesy of the artist

Behind the scenes, however, plenty has occurred to enrich his professional advancement. A native of Washington, D.C., Bullock began frequenting Western North Carolina in 1996, when he was invited to teach at the Swannanoa Gathering, Warren Wilson College’s educational program of summer folk arts workshops. He’s remained on staff each year and has also been a fixture at the Swannanoa Solstice since its 2003 inception.

“I was automatically here at least twice a year, and usually more than that, developing friendships and developing connections,” he says. “So when I did finally get to move here full time [in 2013], it was like I’d already been here for a long time. It felt totally like home and it still does. It’s very inspiring to be around this many musicians and creative people in general.”

Bullock has helped further that sense of community at White Horse through his monthly Carolina Celtic concert series. He views Wolf Tracks and the record release show as a tribute to the traditions celebrated at the Black Mountain venue and as a way to honor his longtime friendship with Petteway, a fellow local who passed away in September following a short illness.

“We used to have a great time just playing together and geeking out about guitars and so forth,” Bullock says. “It was a huge loss. I think we’re all still kind of processing it. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone, but he was one of my all-time favorite guitar players and composers for the guitar, as well as a really close friend. I miss him.”

For more information, visit

WHO: Robin Bullock
WHERE: White Horse Black Mountain, 105 Montreat Road, Black Mountain
WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 10, 8 p.m. $22 advance/$25 day of show/$11 students


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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