He’s a Little Bit Country
Robbie Fulks is a country singer who seems to have a love-hate relationship with country music. A three-year stint in Nashville turned him vehemently against the country industry for pushing music that he says is “meant to bolster people’s upbeat fantasies about themselves and to ply them with pious platitudes about their meager existences.” Yet even as he excitedly discusses his interest in combining the sounds of such diverse favorites as Jean Shepard, Louis Prima, and the Velvet Underground, Fulks admits, “I see myself centered around some kind of twang or honky-tonk tradition.”
It all began with country for Fulks, 34. His father gave him a banjo when he was seven, and as he grew up in Virginia and North Carolina it became the bedrock of his musical explorations. By the time he dropped out of Columbia University in the early 80s and followed a girlfriend to Chicago, he had decided to make music his full-time career. He taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music for 12 years, supplementing his income with turns as a paralegal, proofreader, temp, and actor. In 1987 he joined Special Consensus, the city’s premier bluegrass band, as a guitarist. After he left them in 1990, a friendship with fellow Old Town instructor Jim DeWan evolved into a monthly country-tinged variety show at Deja Vu called the Trailer Trash Revue.
In 1993 DeWan persuaded Fulks to traipse down to Nashville, where DeWan had found work as a songwriter. It turned out to be a disastrous but invaluable experience for Fulks. He got a quick offer from a respected publishing company, but once he signed with them he never caught a whiff of success. “I was writing about half for me and half for them,” says Fulks, whose innocent visage and perpetual buzz cut recall a young George Jones or Buck Owens. Writing “some really obscenely bad but commercial-sounding songs” started to turn Fulks’s stomach. “I realized that it was woman’s music and that it was middle-aged people’s music….It became obvious that that kind of stuff was completely irrelevant to anything I wanted to do.”
As luck would have it, around the time Fulks became exasperated with Nashville, the local Bloodshot label noticed his songwriting credit on “Cigarette State,” a tune Chicago country legends the Sundowners had recorded. Fulks recorded his own version for the label’s first release. After he put in another compilation appearance, Bloodshot made him an offer for a full-length album. The 1996 release of Country Love Songs attracted immediate attention from new fans, critics, and savvy industry types for its goofy humor (“The Scrapple Song”), tragicomic smarts (“She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)”), and classic songcraft (“Tears Only Run One Way”), despite the incongruity of such straight and generally earnest country songs surfacing on a label that’s made its name maligning that kind of music.
When the A & R folks came calling after Bloodshot released his debut (though no one from Nashville ever knocked on his door), he sent them a 90-minute demo tape filled with original material, none of it like the material on Country Love Songs. The tape reflected his interest in rockabilly, blues, bluegrass, and pure pop. That quickly narrowed down his list of suitors, since most labels have no interest in artists who can’t be neatly categorized. But Geffen A & R man Brian Long came back with even more interest. Fulks signed with Geffen mainly because they were eager to allow him the creative freedom to work in a wide variety of styles. “As far as doing other kinds of music in the future, I see it as me standing on this patch of ground called country and just grabbing other things out of the air,” says Fulks. “I couldn’t really sound the full diapason as long as I was with Bloodshot.”
“I think Rob is very much a career artist who could be around for 20 or 30 years,” says Long. “He doesn’t want to be cornered into one particular style, and I think he’ll stand above any trend.”
The new South Mouth, arriving in stores this Tuesday, fulfills Fulks’s contractual obligations to Bloodshot, though it’s anything but filler. His playing, singing, and writing reveal striking improvements over his debut. Whereas Country Love Songs occasionally stumbled over hokiness and a cloying lack of seriousness, the new album achieves a perfect balance. Tunes like “I Told Her Lies” and “Dirty-Mouthed Flo” connect Fulks with the lost art of country humor, while the modern murder ballad “Cold Statesville Ground” delivers cold-hearted brutality that could make Quentin Tarantino blush. While “Fuck This Town” masterfully rips on Nashville tackiness, the album’s real gems are songs like the Louvin Brothers-ish “Heart, I Wish You Were Here” and the verging-on-heartbreak lament “I Was Just Leaving.” By the album’s conclusion it’s clear that Fulks isn’t some alt-country upstart as much as a songwriter with the potential of Harlan Howard or Jim Lauderdale.
Fulks, who’s been touring with country staples like Junior Brown, Robert Earl Keen, and Kim Richey, will appear this January on Austin City Limits. Not bad for a guy who jokes that his entire career has been characterized by “a lack of thinking.” Fulks celebrates the release of South Mouth with a headlining performance at FitzGerald’s next Friday, October 10, and he also headlines Schubas on Halloween.
Souled American, the duo of Chris Grigoroff and Joe Adducci, will appear locally for the first time in almost three years on Wednesday and Thursday at the Empty Bottle. The twosome has put out two wrenchingly beautiful albums since they last performed here (Frozen and Notes Campfire), and these not-to-be-missed dates promise loads of new music from one of Chicago’s most original bands.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robbie Fulks photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.