Walking to the beat of a different drum, singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks has carved a path between punk iconoclasm and country traditionalism, the Sundowners and Steve Albini, Bloodshot and Geffen, Chicago and Nashville. In this article from the new issue of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Journal of Country Music — now available on newsstands and by subscription — the writer Peter Margasak interviews this country artist without borders.
Winding down his 1999 New Year’s Eve set at FitzGerald’s — a popular roots-rock club just outside Chicago — Robbie Fulks hit the stage in thigh-high black boots, fishnets, elbow-length black gloves, a short black skirt, a leopard-print Spandex slip, a lace choker, and a wig and makeup. He and his band enthusiastically ripped into Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” It was a particularly good gag from a guy whose sharp sense of humor usually comes in both scathing digs at the music industry and good-natured, old-fashioned wordplay. While Fulks was aiming for nothing much more than some enjoyable gender confusion, the bit added some weight to a question posed by a reviewer in Spin magazine earlier this year: “Who’s the real Robbie Fulks?”
Since releasing his 1996 debut album Country Love Songs for Chicago’s self-proclaimed “insurgent country” indie label Bloodshot Records, he’s kept fans, critics, radio programmers, and record label reps guessing. While many folks have gotten flustered trying to paraphrase his range, Fulks is utterly nonchalant about his versatility and depth; it’s nothing more than an organic extension of his garrulous onstage personality. His debut and its follow-up, South Mouth (Bloodshot, 1997), revealed Fulks as a natural and gifted songwriter with a withering wit and an encyclopedic understanding of classic country song forms; he also happened to be one hell of a guitar player. Highlighting his left-of-center status, much of Fulks’s debut was recorded by Steve Albini, the punk gadfly best known for engineering releases by such alternative icons as the Jesus Lizard, Nirvana, and Polly Harvey.
With this punk-rock cred, coupled with a smart aleck attitude and an effortless idiomatic grip on hard-core honky-tonk, Fulks was quickly embraced by Bloodshot’s alternative-country fan base, particularly after his instant classic, the anti-Nashville anthem “F*** This Town,” appeared on South Mouth. Before this second album even came out, however, Fulks had signed a deal with Geffen Records, who released Let’s Kill Saturday Night in 1998, and that’s when people started getting confused. Although some of the songs on his major label debut were country, many of them were highly literate, unabashed guitar-driven pop tunes.
To those who screamed sell-out — and there were quite a few of them, fans and critics alike — Fulks may have earned his just deserts when, due to disappointing sales and the corporate restructuring of the Polygram/Universal merger (the latter company owned Geffen), his contract was bought out last year and he found himself without a label.
Earlier this year, while working on his next album, Fulks returned to Bloodshot to release an odds-and-ends collection sarcastically called The Very Best of Robbie Fulks, an album which only reinforced the wide array of styles Fulks felt comfortable within. The album’s purpose was to keep his name out there and give him something to tour behind. “I thought it might be a way to win back some people, and I thought it was a way to make another case that I didn’t just change my tune for a major label,” he says.
Regardless of genre, Fulks has maintained remarkable consistency in the craftsmanship, intelligence, and tunefulness of his writing. His sizable reserve of songwriting knowledge has been accrued through experience; he’s been something of a journeyman, although it’s clear he wants to end the journey and finally arrive.
Fulks was born in York, Pennsylvania, on March 25, 1963. Due to his father’s career in academia the family was somewhat itinerant. As a kid Fulks moved frequently: Stops on the trail included York, Mount Joy, and Mountville, Pennsylvania; Waynesboro and Charlottesville, Virginia; Wake Forest, and, finally, Creedmoor, North Carolina. In the midst of all that moving, music was a constant. His father collected records and often played music on the weekends. “My dad was kind of a pointy-headed ’60s bluegrass fan, and he was into folk music, too,” Fulks says. “I think the necessary angle for him to get into bluegrass was for it to have some kind of educational overtone to it; second generation bluegrass people like Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, New Grass Revival, the people that hipped-up bluegrass and made it a bit more cosmopolitan.” Soon Fulks not only shared his father’s tastes, but he began to play music himself, picking up his Aunt Stella’s banjo when he was seven. Over the next few years he fooled around with other instruments (including his Aunt Mildred’s fiddle), and played banjo in a family band that included his father on guitar, his mother on autoharp, and a family friend on fiddle. By the time he turned 11 he decided to focus on the guitar.
At 17 Fulks had developed his own one-man act, playing local coffeehouses and vegetarian restaurants. “I was listening to a lot of pop stuff then, but I would never get up and try to play ‘Rock Your Baby’ by George McRae or ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles,” he says. “It was always ‘Matterhorn’ by Johnny Horton or old bluegrass and folk songs. I was kind of snobbish about it, but it seemed cooler and more useful somehow to play older, folkier songs than to play pop hits.” As high school graduation approached, his parents pushed him down the collegiate path, and thanks to a good scholarship package he headed off to New York City to study English at Columbia University. His heart, however, wasn’t in it. “I had done well in high school until my last year when I fell in love and started smoking cigarettes, and everything went haywire.”
The city’s bustling music scene quickly commandeered his attention away from classes. “From the time I got up there I was more into socializing and trying to do the Gerdes’ Folk City thing, hang out in the Village, and be Bob Dylan more than I wanted to be scholarly,” says Fulks. His tastes began broadening, too, and he discovered smart ’80s new wave pop artists like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, the Pretenders, and Rockpile. Although he kept plugging away at the folk circuit in New York, he also began playing more pop-oriented material with a group of college chums who eventually became ’90s New York club fixtures 5 Chinese Brothers. But after two years of missing classes and spending his evenings in clubs and jamming with his friends, Fulks dropped out. “I was failing everything, and I was just goofing off.”
In 1983 he and his high school sweetheart, who was pregnant with their first child, decided to move to Chicago, where her parents lived. “We were looking for a home base to start our ersatz family and raise this kid,” he quips. Fulks unsuccessfully lobbied banjo player Greg Cahill, whom he’d met in New York, to let him join his bluegrass band Special Consensus; it wasn’t until 1987 that he was invited to enter the fold.
In the meantime he took a series of run-of-the-mill day jobs, and by 1984 he started teaching classes at Chicago’s venerable Old Town School of Folk Music, where he first met many of the bluegrass and folk musicians he still plays with on occasion. “I think the folk thing is so much a part of my hard drive that I’m always going to be comfortable hanging out with folkies no matter what.” But in 1985 he began to snoop around the rock scene, joining a new band through a classified ad for the sole purpose of learning how to play electric guitar. “We rehearsed three nights a week for about three months, we played three gigs, and then I left.”
He took a break from learning how to rock when the invitation from Special Consensus came in the fall of 1987. He worked with them, touring incessantly, until January of 1990. Says Fulks, “I was trying to make a living from music and that left me half a dozen things I could do. Being a bluegrass guitarist was one of them. It didn’t really relate to the songwriting thing, but it allowed me to learn some chops and make money for a couple of years. It eventually dawned on me that the only way I was going to be able to really satisfy myself was just to go out under my own name and write songs.” Although Fulks had already become a country aficionado prior to joining Special Consensus, he credits the group’s fiddler, Al Murphy, with instilling in him a true understanding of the music. “He not only introduced me to dozens of artists I had never heard, but taught me how to come to them more humbly, receptively, and intelligently.”
When he decided to strike out on his own he took a roundabout path. For three years he operated a wild and woolly variety show called the “Trailer Trash Revue” at a local Chicago bar called the Deja Vu, and then participated in a weekly Sunday night gig at another bar for a few more years. Fulks finally got his own band off the ground in 1993 with the idea that it would play with “no holds barred, all kinds of music.” Yet it was his nascent interest in writing country songs that finally ignited his career. At the time he had a day job downtown as a paralegal, and after work he began frequenting the Bar R R, a run-down bar in the Loop where Chicago honky-tonk stalwart the Sundowners held court. The venerable outfit was experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Embraced by the British punk band the Mekons — whose leader, Jon Langford, is now one of the central figures in Chicago’s alt-country scene — the Sundowners found themselves appealing to a punk audience hungry for the band’s traditional country sound. Fulks would sit in with the Sundowners now and again, and when the group cut its album Chicago Country they included Fulks’s song “Cigarette State.”
That songwriting credit attracted the attention of Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller — two former punk-rockers who’d become hard-core country converts — as they were assembling what was to be the first release on their new label Bloodshot Records, a compilation called For a Life of Sin. They found Fulks’s name in the phone book and invited him to submit his own version of the tune for the album. Fulks had already cut some demos, including “Cigarette State,” with the notorious Steve Albini. Fulks performed at a release party for For a Life of Sin, and Warshaw was impressed enough to set up a meeting with Fulks the following week.
Although the emergence of the Bloodshot label in Chicago came at a fortuitous time for Fulks, it was also an indicator that larger forces were taking shape. Without realizing it, Bloodshot was raising a flag that the nascent alt-country scene rallied around. Rock bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks had been increasingly incorporating twang into their edgy roots-rock amalgams, but Bloodshot inadvertently called it a scene. The label used the term “insurgent country” to distance itself completely from contemporary mainstream country, and began releasing a steady stream of CDs by bands informed by both a country and a punk aesthetic. Bored punk-rockers, still hungry for music steeped in authenticity, came out of the woodwork en masse.
When Bloodshot’s Warshaw approached Fulks, he sensed the opportunity. “I knew what they wanted from the music they liked and the way they dressed, to take two simple ideas and put them together,” he says about the Bloodshot crew. “I guess I was just opportunistic enough, knowing that I just wanted to make a record really badly and that I understood country and punk attitude enough to pull off that kind of a record.” He drew up a business proposal for Bloodshot, explaining what the music would sound like, who would play on it, and how much it would cost. “They took a long time with it and eventually they came back to me and said, ‘Oh, did you think that we would pay for this record?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I thought that that’s what the record company would do.’”
Although they demurred, they did invite him to contribute a song to their next compilation, Hell-Bent. At the end of 1994 he recorded three more songs with Albini, including “She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died),” which ended up on the compilation. Looking to expand his musical associations, Fulks and his band cut more songs the following summer with Lou Whitney and the Skeletons in Springfield, Missouri. Bloodshot eventually decided they could afford the $3,000 Fulks had asked for in his proposal, and they released Country Love Songs in 1996, culled from the various sessions with Albini and Whitney.
With amped-up energy and grit the collection’s vivid mix of heartbreak, humor, and hubris quickly established Fulks’s range within country styles: The release included excessively dark songs like “Barely Human” (a sobering portrait of alcoholism); the clever rendering of failed romance in “The Buck Stops Here” (out of desperation the song’s narrator reaches for an old 45, which turns out to be a scratchy Buck Owens single); the giddy novelty of “The Scrapple Song” (a knee-slapping paean to Pennsylvania’s favorite breakfast meat); and the funny, hard-hitting existentialism of “She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died)” (a forgotten Hollywood star escapes her declined fame). This marriage of twangy hooks and wickedly smart lyrics elevated Fulks well above the clumsy alt-country carpetbaggers who surrounded him. Not only did he prove that he understood the form, but he also had something to add to it.
While Fulks was negotiating with Bloodshot he signed a three-year contract with the Nashville songwriting house API, ostensibly getting into bed with the very forces Bloodshot virtually made its mission to oppose. Jim Dewan, an old Trailer Trash Revue partner and a member of his band, had hooked up with Acuff-Rose in 1993 and suggested that Fulks get in on the action, too. In the first three months of his stint he got off to a good start. “I got like twenty songs demoed and I thought, ‘This is great, I must be doing exactly what they want, and sooner or later if I do fifty, one of them is going to hit somewhere,’” he says. But when the person who signed Fulks left the company, things took a turn for the worse.
With his original liaison gone, his songs stopped getting demoed and the relationship deteriorated. In 1997 Fulks told me what Nashville wanted was, “middle-aged people’s music and that it was made to bolster people’s upbeat fantasies about themselves and to ply them with pious platitudes about their meager existences.” Although his contract expired in early 1998, he gave up long before that. “After a year I got disgusted. It was all industry, inside bullcrap. I just decided to write for myself.”
It was his Nashville experience that inspired the most notorious song on South Mouth, “F*** This Town,” a seething attack on the machine behind contemporary mainstream country. Lyrically, Fulks didn’t mince words, dissing everything from Music City songwriters-in-the-round nights to late ’90s Nashville product that had sunk even lower than Ronnie Milsap’s power-pop ballad period: “Hey, this ain’t country-western!/It’s just soft-rock feminist crap!/And I thought they’d struck bottom back in the days of Ronnie Milsap/Now they can’t stop the flood of assholes: there ain’t a big enough ASCAP.” Those feelings were reinforced by the fact that after his Bloodshot debut began accruing accolades, A&R reps from Geffen, DreamWorks, Columbia, and Elektra began expressing an interest in his music, but nobody in Nashville gave him the time of day. By February of 1997 he had a commitment to Geffen, and he signed formally in June. Although Bloodshot wanted to sell the rights to the second album in his contract to the major, both Fulks and the reps at Geffen wanted to release South Mouth on the indie to strengthen his grassroots following. He recorded the entire thing with Whitney this time, thanks, in part, to financial support from Geffen.
The collection built upon the fundamentals of his debut with a catchy, expertly crafted batch of songs that includes chilling murder ballads (“Cold Statesville Ground”), raucous two-beat comedy (“I Told Her Lies”), pretty Everly Brothers-esque balladry (“Heart, I Wish You Were Here”), and Bakersfield-flavored honky-tonk (“I Was Just Leaving,” one of several songs which features former Buckaroo Tom Brumley on steel guitar). Despite its close musical relationship with its edgy predecessor, the album offered a few hints of what Fulks had up his sleeves, whether it was the use of a brutal guitar solo to symbolize bloody violence in “Cold Statesville Ground,” or the inclusion of classic Cole Porter-styled pop via Jim Dewan’s “You Wouldn’t Do That to Me.” But as good as the album was, Fulks was clearly thinking about making his next record.
One of the reasons he went with Geffen was that the label was willing to let him explore a wider stylistic range. On the release of South Mouth, in the summer of 1997, Fulks told me, “I can’t really sound the full diapason as long as I’m with Bloodshot. I sent every major label that sniffed around after Country Love Songs a 90-minute tape of stuff that sounded nothing like it — different rock stuff, different blues stuff — and Geffen was the only one that came back doubly strong.” He proved good to his word, recording Let’s Kill Saturday Night during the spring of 1998 in Nashville with producer Rick Will, who’d worked with everyone from No Doubt to AC/DC to Gillian Welch. It’s a big-sounding piece of work, and the major label budget afforded Fulks the opportunity to bring in outside guests such as Lucinda Williams, Sam Bush, Bill Lloyd, and Al Anderson, joined by his crack working band: guitarist Rob Gjersoe (a regular Jimmie Dale Gilmore associate), bassist Lorne Rall, and drummer Dan Massey. And while country courses through much of the album in one way or another, it nevertheless makes a radical departure from his Bloodshot output. It’s roots-informed pop music of the highest caliber: The title track is an anthemic roots-rocker about escaping the work week; “Take Me to the Paradise” is a shiny slice of pure pop about a troubled, Truman Capote-type figure; “Little King” is a thrashing stomper that chronicles time catching up with a small-town tough; and “Pretty Little Poison” is a soulful duet with Williams that multiplies the lust and longing of the words with its arched-back delivery. Proving that a major label contract hadn’t turned him into a conservative, he delivered some typical button-pusing with “God Isn’t Real,” a prickly response to the Louvin Brothers classic “Satan Is Real.”
But as wide and convincing as his musical range is, Fulks’s greatest achievement may be his lyrics. Songs like “Bethelridge” and “Down in Her Arms” tackle brutal domestic discord — the former finds a child lost between his estranged parents; the latter details the ugly extramarital peregrinations of a lost man. But the album’s masterpiece is “Night Accident,” a modern mountain ballad of betrayal that turns deadly. In the song, two best friends get into a car wreck, pinned inside an automobile that sits precariously at a railway crossing. As the lights of a train, and with it certain death, approach, the passenger confesses that he has slept with the driver’s wife. In that instant, someone chances to walk by the wreck, unaware of its presence on the railroad track. But when the passenger implores his friend to honk the car horn and alert the passerby, he’s met with silent inaction. It’s a harrowing bit of gothic imagery, propelled, in part, by a stunning literary device. Fulks breaks the otherwise perfect rhyme scheme with the line, “Just forgive me this wrong I’ve done you, my friend,” symbolizing the betrayal with a verbal clank.
“I’ve always been wary of people who try to combine novelistic techniques and pop songwriting techniques because I think it’s an invitation to charlatanry,” says Fulks. “But one or two times in the world it’s been done right. Emily Dickinson was the first poet I knew of who chose between exact rhymes, near rhymes, and non-rhymes, and when I realized that I thought that nobody who writes songs does that deliberately. When you come across a non-rhyme in a Nashville country song it represents a failure of imagination, it doesn’t represent a deliberate effort to play with expectation or sound.”
As Fulks anticipated, Let’s Kill Saturday Night met with mixed reactions. “I knew I had a weird little ideological fan base, people wearing stylistic blinders that were into the scene, into the cult,” he says. “I tried to drive it home to the people at Geffen and my manager that we couldn’t really count on my old audience because I was delivering a different kind of music, and that we had to try to build a different kind of audience, a coalition audience. It would be some country people, some songwriter people, the kind of people that have records by Junior Brown, Shawn Colvin, and Elvis Costello.” But the album never really got its chance.
“The record came out in September of 1998, but the marketing plan they drew up began, more or less, in January of 1999,” says Fulks. “That induced some skepticism on my part. Their explanation was that during the fall they would be preoccupied with [Geffen rock acts] Courtney Love and Rob Zombie, and that if my record was worked then it might be stomped on. When January came around the plane got to the end of the runway, and it wouldn’t take off.” Coincidentally the Polygram-UNI merger happened that same month, leaving Fulks in limbo. He says every contact he had at the label had left. By March he started contemplating what turned out to be The Very Best of Robbie Fulks to offset the vacuum that the merger imposed, and he succeeded in having Geffen buy out the remainder of his contract.
“From the time I looked certain to be dropped, I felt a ton lifted off of me, and eagerly anticipated getting the money,” admits Fulks. “1998 was the worst year of my career, as the record that contained what I thought to be my best work and which I labored on without compensation for many months was consigned to oblivion. The big talk with which my manager and the folks at Geffen, for a good while and in the usual way, had been pumping me up — ‘Get ready for two solid years in the maelstrom! We’d like you to collaborate with Beck! How would you like to act in movies?’ — while in the main blatantly fatuous and empty, still served to intensify the bitter taste at the end.”
Fulks returned to Bloodshot to release his Very Best of . . . vault-emptying collection which spanned from 1988 (his hooky homage to Susanna Hoffs, “That Bangle Girl”) to 1999 (his feudin’-and-fightin’ duet with Kelly Willis, “Parallel Bars”). The album also covered the greatest stylistic range of any of his releases, although the emphasis on twangy material was designed to lure back some old fans. There was a blast from his bluegrass past with Special Consensus on “Hamilton County Breakdown” (a fine show of his flatpicking skills); a bathetic George Jones-styled ballad in “I Just Want to Meet the Man” (something of a stalker’s cry, where, with typical perversity, Fulks sings, “I just want to know the stranger who/Has put his poison inside of you”); and even a bit of noir-ish instrumental soundtrack work with “Gravid and Tense.”
This time out the song that drew heat was “White Man’s Bourbon,” a calculatedly outrageous rockabilly gem about a traveler who satisfies his lust by feeding African natives hooch. In his hysterical liner notes Fulks defends the song by citing such less-than-politically-correct classics as “Ubangi Stomp,” “Pickaninnies’ Paradise,” and “Mohawk Squaw.” If that wasn’t enough, he also takes a shot at his hyperbolic anti-Nashville constituency by bogusly claiming that the song was culled from a non-existent Bloodshot compilation, Nashville: We Will Slice Your Putrid C*** to Ribbons: Insurgent Country, Vol. 6. Making enemies of the humor-impaired is not a particular concern of Robbie Fulks.
Although the compilation was officially released in January of 2000, Fulks arranged to begin selling it over his Web site in the fall of 1999. “I’ve had a crash course in the last year of different ways to put out records, with majors, with indies, and over the Internet,” he says. “I laid out the pros and cons for myself for each way, and as horrible as my major label experience was, in some ways it’s still the only way to get records into stores, to get on the radio, and to do a lot of things that are important to do.”
But he’s not waiting for a label to scoop him up. Fulks is currently busy with two CDs. The first, 13 Hillbilly Giants, available now at Robbiefulks.com, showcases his hard-core country roots. A labor of love that pays homage to some of his country influences, the CD contains Fulks’s interpretations of songs by such artists as Jimmie Logsdon, Dave Rich, Jean Shepard, Jimmy Arnold, and Hank Penny.
His second current project, set for a tentative release in August 2001, is a CD that covers his eclectic musical range. Using his Geffen buy-out money, Fulks began recording this new album — working title, Couples in Trouble — in the winter of 1999, producing it himself and opening up the recording possibilities to include digital editing, sampling, and other instrumentation. His brother Jubal, 11 years his junior, contributed string arrangements and plays violin on it. “There will be about three genre songs on this record just so it doesn’t fly off into the ether, so that it has some relationship to identifiable styles,” he says. “I’m trying to hybridize as much as possible. With the new group of songs I wanted to try to write stuff that didn’t have any relationship to a radio format, where the influences were really buried, and where the authorial voice would be my own.” He’s resolute that he’ll succeed according to his own standards. “I keep reading stuff that says I’m a guy that does all sorts of music, and that’s how I’d like to shape my image, that I’m a multi-genre songwriter and not a guy that was country that’s trying to do stuff that’s beyond my vocabulary.” Except, of course, the occasional Shania Twain cover.
Peter Margasak is a staff writer at the Chicago Reader. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, JazzTimes, and Spin.