Robbie Fulks – Leaving NashVegas
Well I came down to Nashville in 1993
‘Cause my friend Jimmy said Nashville
Had money growin’ right on the trees
So I thought I’d go pick some
And I don’t mean musicalese
Now it’s three years later
And I’m wonderin’ where I went wrong
I shook a lot of hands, ate a lotta lunch
Wrote a lotta dumb-ass songs
But I couldn’t get a break in Nashville
If I tried my whole life long
So fuck this town, fuck this town
Fuck it in the end, fuck it up and down
Can’t get noticed, can’t get found
Can’t get a cut, so fuck this town.
–“Fuck This Town”, Robbie Fulks
Judging by “Fuck This Town”, Robbie Fulks’ spleen-venting summation of his three-year tenure at Songwriters, Inc., a Nashville publishing factory that feeds radio-ready pap to hat acts like Joe Diffie and Tim McGraw, it would be safe to assume that Fulks isn’t wild about Music City USA. And, according to the singer, “Fuck This Town” — available on his second album, the newly released South Mouth (Bloodshot) — tells things much as they happened.
“Everything in it is true, even so far as one of my friends saying, ‘Come on down here, there’s work to be had,'” Fulks says of his vituperative rant. “I went down to Nashville, got the songwriting deal and wasted away in obscurity — and wasted a lot of time and money for a couple years with nothing really to show for it.”
Fulks nonetheless insists that “Fuck This Town” offers only a partial picture of his feelings toward the home of the Grand Ole Opry, especially his respect for the city’s undeniable musical legacy. “I don’t see myself as an anti-Nashville maverick,” said Fulks, a North Carolina native who lives in Chicago. “That comment’s been made about the first Bloodshot record that I did, but I don’t see it. I see it as traditional country music.
“When I came down there, I saw myself as potentially part of the Jim Lauderdale/Al Anderson left-wing of country songwriting,” continued Fulks. “And I don’t see why it didn’t work out that way, other than my networking and strategizing were inefficient — or that my songs didn’t fit into that mold. But I still see my songwriting as pretty traditional, even if every now and then I like to throw in a chord or a word that’s kind of idiosyncratic and doesn’t necessarily adhere to the style of whatever the hat act or flavor of the month is down there.”
Fulks may be more eccentric, even iconoclastic, than Nashville’s most progressive songwriters. It’s interesting, however, that, at a time when Music Row takes its cues from ’70s rock and pop acts such as the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Dan Fogelberg, Fulks’ material shares more with the catalogs of Harlan Howard and Hank Thompson, writers who’ve penned songs for the ages. Fulks also draws inspiration from the people he calls “the day laborers of the ’50s and ’60s of Nashville songwriting like Bobby Braddock, Dallas Frazier, Roger Miller and Leon Payne….They’re the classic country songwriters you have to measure up to.
“Of all the things said about how to write a country song, most of them are the same now as they were 40 years ago,” he continued. “You know, the platitudes like ‘Tell a story that people can relate to,’ ‘Make one line flow into the next line,’ ‘Keep the language simple,’ ‘Make the melody go up high on the chorus’ — all of those things are absolutely intact from 40 years ago.”
Even so, Fulks notes two primary differences between today’s country songs and those written in Nashville during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. “The older music was more playful,” he observed. “It wasn’t dead earnest all the time, which is something that I personally really miss. In the tradition of Buck Owens, Bill Carlisle and Hank Thompson, almost everybody had playful fun songs — and not just novelty songs.
“I also think that on a craft level, the quality was a little bit higher 40 years ago. Maybe one of the reasons was that in the other non-country cultures, standards were also higher. In the pop music world you had Cole Porter and the Tin Pan Alley writers. They, in turn, set a higher standard for country music.”
These differences notwithstanding, Fulks feels the Nashville of the ’90s still boasts one of the finest songwriting communities anywhere. “The good thing about Nashville is that, per capita, there’s probably more good songwriters and players to support the specific songwriting vibe than in any other city,” he observed. “So getting hooked up with those guys was a real nice side effect. I haven’t co-written with a huge number of people, but the ones I keep coming back to are John Sieger and Bill Lloyd, and now, Al Anderson.
“I think Nashville is a real easy target for smart, cool people to kick around,” Fulks said, referring to those who haven’t acquainted themselves with the more enduring side of Nashville’s musical legacy. And yet, ever the wag, he added, “Although Nashville should by all means get ridiculed and kicked around as much as possible.”