Robbie Fulks - The man in the mirror
The tall, slender man on the other side of the table finishing his vegetarian lunch is dangerous and unfailingly polite. His hair is sandy and worn just long enough to reveal a slight wave. His eyes remain steady, quizzical, even kind. Maybe even kind. Within the discomfort of his songs and his online newsletter, Robbie Fulks is formidable: a killer, a convincing drunk, an experienced and adroit cheater, and, worse, a humorist. All this is accomplished with great guitar virtuosity, antic flourishes onstage, and no apparent regard for falling chips. Nevertheless, it is the wit and bite with which he writes that makes Fulks intimidating, and worth listening to. That and his detailed knowledge of what country music has sounded like over the years, and who played it. He has been most visible (if at all) scratching that last itch these past few years, first with 13 Hillbilly Giants, his 2001 collection of covers plucked from the deep country canon, then with cuts on recent tributes to Wanda Jackson and Webb Pierce. He also produced Touch My Heart, the Johnny Paycheck tribute, for Sugar Hill Records in 2004. "They're really tempting," he admits of those salutes, "because a guy like me -- and I assume, you -- that's so in love with dead things will just jump at any opportunity to appear with a group of like-minded past worshippers." But the acid-penned songwriter has been oddly silent for some time. His only album of fresh material in seven years was 2001's self-released Couples In Trouble. "I only write songs for records anymore," Fulks says, "since I don't have a songwriting deal." More's the pity. The May 17 release of Georgia Hard on Yep Roc (the original working title was Reality Country) is an overdue reminder of his gifts. It is also the quintessential Robbie Fulks alt-country album, replete with barbed humor, an unguarded swipe at portions of his audience (those who presumably viewed 1998's Let's Kill Saturday Night and the far more ambitious Couples In Trouble as unnecessary aberrations), two murders, and an unyielding toll of broken hearts. He's updated his sound a bit, moving from the honky-tonks as far as the mid-1970s for inspiration, but the picking and singing is pure country. He even recorded in Nashville, with the likes of Sam Bush on mandolin and Lloyd Green on steel and dobro. There is also the matter of an unreleased suite of Michael Jackson songs. Nothing was more giddy in the early days of alt-country than the chorus of Fulks' "She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)", which first appeared on Bloodshot's second landmark Insurgent Country compilation in 1995. It is, of course, the tragic story of a failed artistic career, told with the callous glee of teenage punk, yet played with the polish and finesse of a first-call country band. In many ways that song encapsulated the critique of mainstream country made by the writers and artists who frequent these pages, for it was classic country and nothing like what might hope to be played on country radio. Now, it's a fair question why anybody from the rock world cared what happened to country. It's not as if the classic works of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Dolly Parton or Merle Haggard were about to vanish from print for all time. And that, at least initially, is what we were interested in, drawn to: The old stuff. The good stuff, the certified raw pre-punk savagery of the hard days when blood and sweat and sex and hangovers could happen on either side of the footlights, and maybe that's what country really has in common with punk. Except punk rock never wept much. (Maybe it should've, before the funerals.) The weird thing is that Robbie Fulks -- onetime New York folksinger, former guitarist in the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band Special Consensus, perennially uncut Nashville songwriter -- ever got tied up in all of this. Maybe that was the critique, in the end -- that Robbie had to be associated with the post-punk insurgent country crowd in Chicago to be heard. Today he won't even object to the label alt-country. "I think there needs to be a phrase that says, 'This is country, but it's not the same old crap,'" he suggests, almost gently, "since country's pretty well come down to crap in recent times. Alternative has a certain kind of aroma, I guess, of maybe punk or maybe seeded rolls at the lesbian bakery or something. "I consider what I do pretty straight country a lot of the time. So it's not necessarily punk, definitely not punk. Sometimes it's seeded rolls at the lesbian bakery. It's usually not punk, so the connotations of alternative aren't necessarily accurate, but..." It doesn't make sense when you go back and play it all over again, but, then, the 1990s were filled with paradox. Hell, the decade began with Nirvana and ended up with Britney Spears. What doesn't make sense, today, is this: Country music, that most conservative of musical formats, expanded its musical palette in all kinds of rockish directions, sold a whole bunch of records, and grew a fresh new (yes, suburban) audience. And, by and large, we hated it, though Robbie can mount an eloquent defense of Shania Twain. Somehow it came to be the job of the musical left wing to fly the conservative flag for traditional musical values. Even typing it is confusing, but there it is. Robbie Fulks was born March 25, 1963, in York, Pennsylvania, home also to the band Live and, for a number of years, to Del McCoury and his family. Fulks' father was an academic who changed jobs often, but Robbie spent his high school years not playing basketball in Creedmoor, North Carolina, twenty minutes northeast of Durham. His father was also a bluegrass fan. "I think I started when I was 7 on banjo, 11 on guitar, and then in my teens I played other things, too," Robbie says. "I thought I was headed to be a John Hartford kind of a guy; that's who I really idolized, who I wanted to be. But by the time I was 18 or 20, the acoustic guitar was clearly my voice." A scholarship at Columbia brought him to New York in 1980. "I was putatively there for an English degree," he shrugs, "but I didn't really spend too much time in class. I had this idea that I was going to be a big folk singer in Greenwich Village, so I ended up hanging at a place called the Speakeasy back then and a place called Folk City, and a place called the Other End or the Bitter End -- either name. So I ended up hanging out down there a lot and just drinking and goofing off a lot." New York in 1980 was in a kind of creative tumult that Fulks apparently missed, for punk was in its heyday and Studio 54 was coming to its end. "I was like a little lamb lost," Fulks says. "Yeah, the punk thing, I don't think, really, impinged on my world at all. You can live in North Carolina in the '70s and not hear much '70s country music, and then you go to New York in 1980 and never see the Talking Heads. I was into British new wave at the time, or that's what the whole college-in-New York experience left me [with] -- I was turned on to Dave Edmunds and people like that. Those people I went to see when they came to town." He followed a pregnant girlfriend to Chicago (their son, now 21, is studying to be an airline pilot), fell in with the Old Town folk set, kicked around at straight jobs, and ended up playing guitar in the long-running bluegrass band Special Consensus for a couple years, during which time they were nominated for a Grammy. A tour of the Nashville songwriting factory followed, which yielded nothing so much as the song "Fuck This Town". Back in Chicago he led something called the Trailer Trash Revue, whose members included an actress named Donna who agreed to become Mrs. Fulks and with whom he has sons now 7 and 9 years old. He came to the attention of the emerging Bloodshot label with a song about home called "Cigarette State" that Chicago's then-forgotten, now-venerated country holdouts the Sundowners apparently played in the bar where Bloodshot's founders drank. Something like that. The songs of Robbie Fulks are written, for the most part, within the frozen idiom of classic country music. He performs a poetic judo that turns the form against itself; the tension of the rigid structure somehow liberates his imagination, concealing him in the shadows of the antique framework he has mastered. And he's really, really good at it. He is also really good at other things. After two straightforward Robbie Fulks country albums released by Bloodshot (1996's Country Love Songs and '97's South Mouth), he signed to Geffen on the strength of "a tape of totally different-sounding stuff," he reminds me. "A lot of the labels, it really threw them. But Geffen, the guy over there, Brian Long, came back with his interest redoubled after hearing that tape. "See, I went into that deal wanting to make a different kind of record, and wanting to reach out to a different kind of audience. I know that I pretty much made the record that I wanted to make, except for the sequence of the songs, and it was really qualitatively better than the one that I had in mind in a lot of ways." But Let's Kill Saturday Night (released in September '98) didn't yield any hits, nor did opening for Ben Folds Five generate a larger and more youthful audience. The album sold about 17,000 (his first two Bloodshot releases have sold over 10,000 each), and Geffen released Fulks with some nice parting gifts. What followed were a couple of what he calls "strange, orphan records." The Geffen money allowed Fulks (who's worked at accounting firms when necessary) to finance his subsequent albums and then place them with labels, or sell them himself. First he pulled together a bunch of stray tracks -- including the troubling "White Man's Bourbon" -- for the ironically titled The Very Best Of Robbie Fulks, which he sold on his website through his own Boondoggle label and later licensed to Bloodshot with different cover art. 13 Hillbilly Giants grew out of time spent at the Country Music Hall of Fame archives, and sought to draw attention to the work of Hylo Brown, Jean Shepard, Wynn Stewart, Benny Martin, and other half-forgotten singers and songwriters. That was one part of the agenda. It was also a creative investment strategy: "That one was undertaken to help me finance Couples In Trouble, more or less," Fulks says. Ponder that for a minute, for it's certainly an unusual technique. Fulks financed the record he really wanted to make -- complete with strings arranged by brother Jubal Fulks, and horns, and songs of surpassing ambition, though few of them were country -- by cutting thirteen hillbilly songs he knew his audience would buy. That's a small part of what he means when talking about the limitations of his vocals: "Well, I guess everybody's instrument is limited, but I haven't been able to escape from that high lonesome nasal thing yet." Well, yeah he has. There's almost none of that on Couples In Trouble. The question is, did anybody notice? The album got a brief but flattering review in these pages (September-October 2001), made one appearance at #22 in the ND retail chart -- not the most precise gauge of retail success, nor the least -- and sold just under 6,000 copies, according to SoundScan. Georgia Hard is the first record of his own he's made since Couples, an unprecedented pause in his output. "Probably most of it was 9/11," Fulks says. "It happened, I don't know, maybe three weeks after that Couples record came out, and being on the road at the end of 2001 and trying to concentrate on that record, while the record and the shows were hurting because of that. More, really, because we were away from our families and the whole world seemed kind of topsy turvy, just kind of left a sour taste, so...so I wasn't in any hurry to repeat that experience after that." Doubtless that's true. But I'm one who missed Couples In Trouble. Played it once and filed it, for there were few choruses to sing along with and it wasn't what I expected and my life rarely -- it pains me to admit this in print -- yields time to contemplate an album of such depth and sophistication unless I'm on a long road trip, or am obliged to write about it. I've a guess that Robbie's audience missed Couples In Trouble, too; that the music press largely did the same, too that few people bought it, and that it broke his heart. Go back to that record, for if you want to understand what Robbie Fulks is really capable of, what he aims for -- the considerable scope of his artistic vision -- there it is. "It's easier to appear smart in music than it is somewhere else," he says. "I don't appear smart when I try to work a straight job. I just appear like kind of an oddball." Maybe, but he's a real smart man armed with a guitar and a pen. And he has a family to feed. "I do lots of private parties and weddings," he explains (and I cannot help thinking of Charlie Parker in the film Bird here), "because I do like doing those. And that kind of gig is what's kept me in music for the last four or five years, probably." I don't know about God. I also don't know about Robbie Fulks. Up until nine years ago, when I moved from the west coast to Nashville, I'd knowingly consorted with one Christian and a few of his friends, and had dated a couple of women who sometimes talked about having gone to church, but never did. Nashville is a church-going place, a city in which one's status and community and business connections are often defined by where one addresses God. Ordinarily I would not capitalize the word God, but I have learned respect these last nine years, and married a Christian woman. Maybe our daughter will be a Christian, maybe she won't. Either way's OK with me. Eight years ago, maybe seven, Robbie Fulks came to the Sutler in Nashville, which for a long time was my local. It happens to be the place where I was introduced to my wife, where I let the whiskey tell Tom House how gifted I really think he is, and where I first saw Lucinda Williams sing "Wild Thing" with Chip Taylor. The Sutler isn't fancy. The food's not special, the liquor's not expensive, the sound system is pretty rudimentary, the stage is small and low to the ground, and the sightlines aren't great. But it's one of those places that, when the community settles in, becomes home. Robbie was probably still signed to Geffen back then, and his creative life was filled with possibilities. At some point, inevitably, he tore into "Fuck This Town", the one about how his bid to become a Nashville songwriter failed. Now, like a lot of Robbie's songs, it's funny. Sort of. But Nashville was home, and that was my home bar, and even if I could look around the room and see a half-dozen good songwriters who couldn't get a cut either (and maybe one or two who had), it seemed...ungracious. Unnecessary. A cheap shot. And then, a bit later and with unbridled glee, he slid into "God Isn't Real", which appears toward the end of his Geffen album. Now, I don't know if God is real, and I don't think about it a lot. I know the deer in my Eastern Kentucky back yard move with surpassing grace, I know my daughter's smile can change the course of a very bad day, and I know the sky can turn black and make the streams flood. And I know there are people for whom faith is an affectation, like their clothes and their car and their spouse, and that there are other people -- good people, people I like very much -- for whom faith is an integral part of their being. Judge not lest ye be judged. "I think there are a lot of atheists out there," Robbie says. "They like country music, but they're quiet because we live in sort of a Christian nation. So I thought it was a ripe opportunity to take our Christian nation's Christian music and infuse it with an unapologetic atheist polemic." Robbie Fulks is a gifted humorist, and "God Isn't Real" is a cleverly constructed, beautifully executed song. It also felt, that night at the Sutler and every time I've played it since, like the sound of a small boy pulling wings from a fly to see if bugs scream. Especially the taunting certainty of his chorus. The truth is, I've never quite forgiven Robbie for that song, and have rarely been to see him since. But I have bought his records, just the same. My colleague Linda Ray, a woman of faith who spent much of the 1990s watching Fulks in Chicago (and wrote a cover story on him for ND #11), has a different take: "In Fulks' habitually devious, double-entendre way, he seems actually to have created a unique song of faith," she argues via e-mail. "Questioning God's will is one of the oldest faith traditions: Abraham, Moses, Jonah and Job, to name a few, all challenged the Almighty, and Abraham even scored. But the theme is all but nonexistent in church music, which tends to focus on praise, hope and the wonder of creation, the very 'world full of wonder' that provides Fulks' opening line. "'God Isn't Real' explicitly assumes the existence of God, giving Him dubious credit for 'form[ing] in his image a weak and foolish man,' then 'Speak[ing] to him in symbols that few [not "none"] understand.' Like the patriot who wants to improve the world through protest, Fulks rails at the failure of organized religion to reconcile things. He's having none of it. Why? Because unlike the worldly, political and often materialistic churches where we 'beg, pray and kneel,' God, he reminds us, isn't objectively of this world. Fulks knows where to find Him, and he bids us, albeit cynically, to look there. 'Go ask the starving millions under Stalin's cruel reign/Go ask the child with cancer who eases her pain.' How can we not be angry at God for such suffering? We have faith that he's most present where he's most needed." A post-script, just a thought, really: If "God Isn't Real" is offensive -- and I still think it is -- then what about the gospel music I love for its direct and emotional honesty, for its harmonies, for its passion? Why am I not offended by that as a secular humanist (or whatever)? I don't know. Regardless, God...God remains a presence throughout Fulks' work -- perhaps a curse, maybe an obsession, the ex-girlfriend he's never gotten over. On Georgia Hard, the nods come amid the obligatory uptempo skewering of his audience on "Countrier Than Thou" ("You ain't never read your Bible/Tell me, what's your bylaw?"), and on the beautifully broken-hearted "I Never Did Like Planes" ("I'm halfway to Heaven/And I still haven't let go...I guess we'd all have wings/If God loved goodbyes"). Robbie gets the last word. "['God Isn't Real'] is one of maybe half a dozen songs, including 'Roots Rock Weirdos', that I feel after I've done 'em 100 times, and for a year or whatever it is, that it's time to retire them," he says. "I don't feel like singing them anymore. So maybe it's not a good idea to put 'em on a record, either. But at the time that I wrote 'em and recorded 'em, it seemed like too enticing an opportunity." The funny thing is, Fulks really wanted Buddy Miller to produce Georgia Hard. "I couldn't really think of anybody else that I was really excited to work with," he says. "His schedule is so crazy that it seemed like it was going to work out a couple of times, and then it just never did, so I went in and did it myself." OK, so...the author of "God Isn't Real" wanted to be produced by one of the leading Christian songwriters of our time? Robbie doesn't miss a beat. "He's never really held that stuff against me, so...I don't hold it against him, either." Fulks wasn't new to being in charge in the studio. He'd co-produced Dallas Wayne's 1999 debut, Big Thinkin' (and co-wrote much of the material; Wayne also co-wrote two tracks on Georgia Hard), and more recently did the Johnny Paycheck tribute. And, um, that Michael Jackson covers record. The Jackson diversion evolved out of a series of noontime birthday tributes Fulks used to play at the Cultural Center in Chicago. "If it was Clint Black's birthday, I came in and sang a lot of Clint Black songs," he says. "I was doing a tribute to Michael Jackson down there and the response was...I thought the response was uniquely strong, and the music felt interesting to play, and it felt interesting to do it in a re-arranged, re-imagined way. "After that we started doing 'Billie Jean', because it was the easiest of the ones that I'd rearranged, in our live set, and it routinely got the biggest response, well over my songs. So over the next two to three years -- it seemed like it unfolded for a pretty long time -- we'd go in every two or three months and cut a song or two, until we had twelve or thirteen of 'em. "Right when we were wrapping it up all this stuff came up with him, and it just didn't seem like a good time to put it out, you know, as a tribute to a [an alleged] child rapist." It will, however, come out one of these days, "just because I have so much money in it," he promises. "I think the budget ended up being about $40,000, because it was just in dribs and drabs, and I lost track of how much I was spending. At the end I totaled it up, and said, 'Oh, my God, this is a lot of my family's resources that have gone into this,' so I think I pretty much have to put it out at some point. But I'm thinking that maybe iTunes or some digital release is the way to go with it." Meanwhile, there's the matter of Georgia Hard, which seems to be getting short shrift here. A gifted hillbilly singer abandons his family to become a star, and his son kills him when he succeeds. A rising executive turns down hotel bar sex to avoid jeopardizing his chances to take over his wife's family business, not to honor his marriage. One fellow kisses off a difficult woman with the promise, "It's Always Raining Somewhere", and another fellow -- the poor kid who married up -- knifes his cheating wife in a song featuring one of those classic Nashville turnarounds called "If They Could Only See Me Now". If he were any kind of confessional songwriter, all sorts of explorations might begin, but he's after something else. I'm just not sure what it is, maybe just the pleasure of the craft. It's a rich record, Fulks' best set of country songs so far, written with the same lavish care he bestowed upon Couples In Trouble. And because Fulks has not been an overtly political songwriter (he does not, for example, appear on any of the three anti-death penalty The Executioner's Last Songs discs Bloodshot has released), the concluding verse of "Countrier Than Thou" is something of a surprise: He's got a ranch with a Stetson He's a hip-shooting ex-oil king, Even talks like Buddy Ebsen, But he's sitting in the West Wing. Hankenstein, I'm well aware of But won't somebody please explain How you get a county sheriff Walking with a frat boy's brain? Phil Ochs. Phil Ochs of Greenwich Village wrote beautiful, tender songs like "Pleasures Of The Harbor" and "Flower Lady", but if anybody remembers him today -- other than as a footnote to Dylan's rise -- it's probably for the bitter bite of "Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends" or "Love Me, I'm A Liberal". Ochs' seventh album was 1970's Greatest Hits; they weren't, no more than Fulks' 1999 The Very Best Of was. Trying desperately to reinvent himself (and to stave off the demons that ultimately led to his suicide), Ochs went electric in a gold lame suit for the follow-up, a live show aptly titled Gunfight At Carnegie Hall. Fulks staged a little gunfight of his own one night at SXSW some years back. It was an odd and discomforting evening at the late Liberty Lunch, the night the Bad Livers paid a mariachi band to play their set, the night the Bottle Rockets gave up melody to become a murderous southern rock band. In between, Fulks put his songs through a sonic grinder that sounded as if it had been suggested by his frequent producer, Steve Albini. Phil Ochs committed suicide in 1976. Robbie Fulks is simply trying to find a way to make music and stay home with his kids. "I just don't have as good a time with [touring]," he admits. "I miss my family too much after long stretches. I used to be out for three, four weeks at a time, and I just can't do that anymore. My kids always get sick when I'm gone, and I've got this one boy especially that's really attached to me, the 7-year-old, so he always suffers when I'm gone, and I hate to do it to him." And however conflicted his songs may be, the gracious gentleman across the table speaks eloquently of...contentment. "I hate to sound corny about it," he says, "but I feel like my life is really ideal. Obviously, I went into it when I was a kid thinking I'd be Mick Jagger or one of those people, and there have been moments of disappointment that didn't work out, that I'm not some famous guy that gets busy on the Burger King bathroom floor with girls and stuff. "I think the fact that I'm able to have a full home life and not be on the road all the time, the fact that I can occasionally do these weird side-projects and produce somebody or write a song for somebody, and the fact that I can have this connection with people that I go out and do their weddings or do a show in their living room or something -- I really like the variety of it, and I like the personal connectedness of all that. "And I'd really like to have that along with another 20-30,000 sales. That would definitely make it easier." Robbie Fulks conducted the first part of this interview recovering from the flu. ND co-editor Grant Alden wrote the first part of the article in much the same state. Which is no excuse.