Robbie Fulks has just finished a delicate and show-stopping solo acoustic version of “You Wouldn’t Do That To Me” onstage at T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge when the audience starts yelling out requests. It’s the first song of his encore, and fans are clamoring for some of Fulks’ earlier hardcore traditional country classics. One song in particular, “Fuck This Town” off of his 1997 album South Mouth, has particularly strong support.
The song was once a calling card for Fulks, taking Nashville to task for the cheesy, plastic product they were turning out while crushing young talent in the songwriting mills. As his crack band comes back onstage carrying a kazoo, a jug, a toy concertina, and a washboard, Fulks announces he’s going to honor their request and pulls out a ukulele.
Before the band can get halfway to the famous line, “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,” the P.A. starts blasting a familiar tune. It’s Milsap’s “Pure Love,” and it’s mesmerizing Fulks’ band, and they say they’d rather keep listening than finish the song.
Fulks is incensed. “This is art right here, that’s low, low commerce,” he says.
But the band is insistent, and Fulks capitulates, launching into his own note-perfect cover of “Pure Love” as the band drop their props for their real instruments.
It’s a well-executed piece of sketch comedy from a man who doesn’t take himself, or anyone else, too seriously. Earlier that evening, tuning up in a backroom, Fulks admitted he gets tired of playing some of the earlier music from his albums that he considers novelties.
“I love writing them and I love playing them the first fifty times, and then I’ll play them another fifty times because people want to hear it, if they do,” he says. But how many times can you do ‘Fuck This Town?’ How many times do people want to hear it? Once, twice?”
He also admits he found some songs in Milsap’s repertoire he was nuts about, and regrets having taken a swipe at him. “I kind of felt bad about that,” he says. “Why did I say ‘fuck Ronnie Milsap’? He’s a better singer than me. Some of those early songs are just plain country, really heartfelt, well-written songs.”
Fulks is in a different place these days. After establishing himself as a maverick traditionalist with his first two albums, he recorded an album of singer/songwriter guitar rock (Let’s Kill Saturday Night) and a concept album of impressive scope and virtuosity (Couples in Trouble) that sold poorly and will probably be remembered as one of the most underrated albums of the decade. In between, he recorded an album of classic country covers (13 Hillbilly Giants), produced a tribute to Johnny Paycheck (Touch My Heart), and recorded an album of Michael Jackson covers that was shelved when Jackson was brought to trial on charges of child abuse.
That left Fulks a little older than the hellion who recorded songs like “She Took A Lot of Pills (and Died)” and “Fuck This Town,” and a little more appreciative of the middle-aged, world weary country sounds of the seventies. While he was writing his latest, Georgia Hard, he found himself listening to artists like Roger Miller, who he says has always been an inspiration, as well as the likes of Gene Watson, Mel Street, Porter Wagoner, and, surprisingly, Milsap.
“I think a lot of that stuff, I heard it when I was a kid and I liked it and everything, but it always seemed predominantly cheesy and schmaltzy, or to speak anachronistically, Branson-esque,” he says. “But being more in its intended target demographic now, it seems more sincere and direct – really artful.”
Much of Georgia Hard reflects the records Fulks was spinning at the time. “Leave It To A Loser” is a light tearjerker, complete with flurries of strings and a couple of snatches of Red Sovine-like spoken word. Fulks and his wife Donna make like Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl on “I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me),” a musical sketch comedy piece. “You Don’t Want What I Have” finds a middle-aged man urging a friend to go back to his wife.
“I feel really comfortable and happy just playing country music,” says Fulks. “I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s just being older and more conservative and boring or what. Everyone has their limitations to work with, I guess. Mine is my singing voice and my guitar style. And with both of those, I feel like I have something to offer with the country thing, and maybe less with other styles.”
But to dismiss the music as derivative, or to label Georgia Hard as an album or pure seventies country would be to miss some of Fulks most challenging and diverse songwriting. “Coldwater, Tennessee” is a haunting companion to Saturday Night’s “Night Incident.” “Where There’s A Road” is as fine a rock tune as any in Fulks’ canon, albeit with bubbling mandolin and banjo instead of overdriven electric guitars. “Georgia Hard” is a glorious piece of pop country songwriting would have dominated early seventies A.M. radio.
Put all of Fulks’ records together, and you have one strange trip. Although his fans saw it as an aberration, Saturday Night was a return to Fulks’ early rock songwriting influences like Richard Hell of Elvis Costello. Couples was his attempt to get away from the live sound of his first two albums and create a bona fide studio album along the lines of Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg or the Old 97’s Fight Songs, which Fulks cites as inspiration. This is the same man who says “I’ve got bluegrass in my blood and I like my fiddle tunes” and loves the Louvin Brothers and the Carter Family.
So what does Fulks think makes a good song?
“I think it’s the shock of personality really, when you listen to something, no matter what it is,” says Fulks. “All these different styles that we’re talking about, I don’t really draw a distinction between them in the sense that, when you sit down to listen to a piece of music, you just want to have the sense that somebody’s making it because they had to and you’re getting the sense of an actual revealed personality and not a marketing construct or somebody that’s double-thinking every move that he makes in order to appeal to this person or that person. Somebody that, if they weren’t out doing shows or making records, would be out on his porch singing to the moon just because he had to sing.”
Those are the kinds of people Fulks is trying to promote, not only through cover tunes and tribute albums, but through his monthly XM satellite radio show. “I think radio needs its own HBO or cable so the good stuff at least has some chance of getting heard and competing with the rest of all the garbage,” he says “I think it’s a really exciting, nascent idea that’s just going to grow by leaps and bounds.”
Which doesn’t mean that he’s afraid to offend the very same audience he’s trying to gather. Fulks couldn’t resist including his requisite kissoff anthem on Georgia Hard, this time taking aim at non-Southern country fans who hold the music more sacred than anyone in Dixie on “Countrier Then Thou.” Although he says he would never purposefully alienate his audience (which he says is already too small), he can’t help but take a swing if he thinks something is funny.
“I don’t aim to, it just kind of comes out,” he says sheepishly, laughing. “It’s just me being a smart ass, obnoxious, insufferably guy, which is me.”
That leaves Fulks’ fans to accept him with all of his inherent contradictions and just enjoy well-written music played by a talented musician. Traditional country, rock and roll, concept albums, tribute albums, the country gentleman, the venomous purist