Robbie Fulks – It drawled from the mouth
A wry smile crept almost imperceptibly across his face as the casually imposing figure stood onstage — head bowed, his acoustic guitar poised for a solo performance. Over a room crowded with fans of headliner Guy Clark, the club’s announcer had just introduced this lanky opener as “Chicago’s latest contribution to alternative country music, Robbie Fulks.”
Eschewing that label may be pro forma among acts who tend to be saddled with it, but Fulks is uniquely qualified to recoil at the tag, especially in this context. As he later made plain to the crowd in an irony-tinged aside, he’s singing country music; hence the name of his debut CD, Country Love Songs. Equally irksome, no doubt, is the hint he’s the “latest” of anything. He may be Geffen Records’ latest find, but Fulks, 34, has been around a long time.
He was seven years old when his folk-singing dad handed him a banjo, back home in Creedmore, NC, and the music grabbed him by the throat. His musical path led him through his own folk career and to collaborations with members of Five Chinese Brothers, an East Coast band he met while attending Columbia University in New York City.
By the time he left New York, Fulks was chasing a slot in Chicago’s relentlessly touring Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, but it was a long time coming. He was already almost a fixture at two prominent Chicago folk venues and was teaching at the venerable Old Town School of Folk Music when the opportunity finally came in 1987.
Two and a half years on the road with Special Consensus taught him a lot about restaurant food along America’s interstates, but “the best thing I got out of that,” he says, “was learning how to break the code, how to play well and consistently in front of people.” Calling it a grueling way to live, Fulks quit, figuring, “There weren’t other more famous bluegrass bands asking me to come play guitar for them.”
Soon homesick for the stage, but pretty sick of bluegrass too, Fulks mustered a monthly rock ‘n’ roll review at the Chicago watering hole Deja Vu. “It was three hours of screaming and jumping around — roadhouse rock ‘n’ roll and honky tonk music….The band never rehearsed. I’d start a song and…a lot of times it was a song we’d never played before. The pace was real fast. There were scantily clad dancers onstage kind of moving along with it. My future wife was one of them.”
When this “Trailer Trash Revue” had run its course, Fulks stayed on the stage with a regular Sunday night slot at one of Chicago’s favorite neighborhood joints, Augenblich. For the next four years, he and fellow Old Town School faculty member Jim DeWan would split an hour performing their own material, then share an hour of audience participation, musical gags, and romps through obscure subgenres of music teleology. It was DeWan, then under contract to Acuff-Rose, who urged Fulks to try picking some money from the Nashville songwriting trees.
Meanwhile, back at the Double R Ranch (a storied Chicago bar that was home base for the legendary Sundowners), and uptown at the protopunk Crash Palace, events conspired to make Fulks Chicago’s latest contribution to, if not alternative country, then “insurgent country.” Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller had found a common compulsion spinning traditional country tunes Wednesday nights at Crash Palace. Together they plotted to turn out a compilation of country-inspired songs by Chicago artists. As the last great country and western band in Chicago, the Sundowners headed the pair’s list of desired contributors. The two also drew from Chicago Country, the Sundowners’ CD of songs by Chicago musicians, which included “Cigarette State” by one R. Fulks. Figuring it might be worth finding out if he could sing it himself, Warshaw found Fulks in the phone book and called for a tape.
The tape he had handy was a four-song demo produced by Steve Albini. Fulks had become friendly with the indie-rock icon through a member of Albini’s old band, Big Black. The Albini-produced “Cigarette State” wound up on Bloodshot Records’ opening volley, the compilation For A Life Of Sin. “I like working with Steve a lot,” Fulks said. “He’s invisible when I work with him except that he’s a lot of fun to talk to. He’s a really bright and really funny guy.”
Fulks does credit Albini with the naked sound and bare bones instrumentation of the Country Love Songs track “Barely Human”, a convincingly delivered ballad in which a drunk details with heart-searing self-contempt the effects of his drinking on his loved ones. “It’s the most ‘his’ song on there,” says Fulks. “[Albini] said, ‘Give me 20 minutes with this and let me show you what I have in mind.’ I wasn’t sold on it at first, but now I think he did a really good job.”
Although Miller and Warshaw had heard of the Trailer Trash Revue, the first time they saw Fulks perform was at the For A Life Of Sin release party at the Lounge Ax. “In that set,” Miller recalled, “Robbie sang ‘She Took A Lot Of Pills And Died.’ You could hear the room’s collective jaw drop. I mean, it was the song. That led to Hell-Bent [Bloodshot’s second compilation, which featured “Pills”], which led to us sitting around going, ‘You know, this guy’s really talented but…what’s the world going to do with a Robbie Fulks record?’ We thought, ‘Why not?'”
Warshaw and Miller banked on the cachet of Albini’s production credits to help attract new fans. Fulks fleshed out the disc with cuts he’d made with esteemed Missouri bar band the Skeletons, another draw. “It was the Skeletons album with Jonathan Richman [Jonathan Richman Goes Country] that really tipped me off that they could do a good country album,” Fulks said. “It’s probably my favorite Jonathan Richman album.
“We shared a lawyer and I just bothered my lawyer ’til I got their phone number, and I called them up and said ‘Man, I’m a big fan of you guys and I heard you have a studio and let’s just go down and demo. For a long time I was just casting about in the wind, trying to do anything with anybody, and just trying to network like in the Nashville years…just trying to get to meet people and upgrade my associations a little bit. So for no reason in the world I went down there and spent a lot of money to demo a couple songs with the Skeletons ’cause it was a big band and I thought it would be cool to do.”
Bloodshot’s release of Country Love Songs inspired a No Depression “Town & Country” article (#4, Summer ’96) that caught the eye of Brian Long, a Geffen A&R executive. Long bought the record in Los Angeles the first week it was released, then saw Fulks play in New York. “I was totally blown away,” Long says. “He has this wonderful trill. His voice is just so captivating and he’s such a complete entertainer. Then I played ‘The Buck Starts Here’ at an A&R meeting and it was the hit of the meeting.”
Another memorable track on Country Love Songs was “The Scrapple Song,” a tune about that most mysterious of meats which included the lyric, “It’s hearty as a T-bone, slippery as a tadpole/Any old part of the hog will do/Dick and the nipples and the toenails too.” But “Scrapple” had no sooner been recorded than Fulks had another live hit to top it and “Pills” combined. The forthrightly named “Fuck This Town” was a summation of his Nashville experience that’s a ready-made anthem for the overtalented, underemployed, broke and broken muses in the shadows of contemporary country’s bright happy lights.
The frustrations it recounts may be specific, but its sentiment is universal. “Fuck This Town” could be the “Take This Job and Shove It” of the ’90s. The infectious chorus dares you to partake of its release, and whether or not you’d care to quibble, most traditional country music fans would indulge Fulks’ fundamental premise, cynically delivered with the line, “I like old Tim Carroll/and BR5-49/but Nashville don’t need that noise/No, Nashville’ll do just fine.” But then — “As long as there’s a moron market/And a faggot in a hat to sign.” Wait. Did he say that?