Robbie Fulks – The man in the mirror
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.