When Robbie Fulks broke onto Chicago’s music scene in 1996, he embodied the “alt” in alt-country, a self-segregating sect of western music wittier and grittier than the sounds of the day’s Nashville stadium stars. Now, 20 years later, Fulks identifies more as a hillbilly singer, but in truth, he’s carved out a genre all his own—and his new LP, Upland Stories (Bloodshot Records, April 1), proves it.

The album’s 12 weepy folk tunes strike a balance between high art and low country, springing with spirit even at their most hopeless. More than ever, it’s apparent that Fulks, a native of North Carolina, has given himself wholly to Chicago, a city whose distance from the coasts imbues its artists with the boldness to experiment.

In the ’90s, the city set Fulks alongside art-rocker Steve Albini. In the aughts, it had him collaborating with jazz mandolinist Don Stiernberg. On Upland Stories, it lets him follow his instincts closely enough to build a home away from home that anyone would be happy to visit.