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Country Breakdown

Robbie Fulks may not be a radical, but he has definitely changed the face of good ol'-fashioned C&W.

Any musical uprising worth raising a fist for must have its own battle cry. For today's alternative-country camp, Robbie Fulks's anti-Nashville anthem, "Fuck This Town" (from his 1997 neo-country classic, South Mouth), just might be it. But don't think for a minute that Fulks's hilarious-but-pointed shlock country diatribe makes him some kind of revolutionary.

"I'm not an anarchist," Fulks says from his home in Chicago, "because I have absolutely no hopes of my music having any sort of practical impact in the world like that."

For fans of updated country, however, Fulks is alt-twang in the flesh, and his music is the finest weapon the insurgent country army offers. Even if he makes no claim to the title of cultural instigator, it's clear he knows a tad or two about dissidence from the status quo. "I think Rosa Luxembourg probably thought that bombing something was going to change the social structure," he says, citing one of Germany's Socialist leaders and revolutionaries from the early 1900s. "But I just sit quietly in my room and do what I do. And I'm way too appreciative of old lasting stuff, and I'm too fundamentally conservative to call myself that anyway."

He stops to smell the flowers: Robbie Fulks has caught a whiff of alt-country success.
He stops to smell the flowers: Robbie Fulks has caught a whiff of alt-country success.

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What's more, notes Fulks -- who shares his home with his wife and their two toddling children -- penning anthems of defiance comes with a price. "My kids play my records all the time," he says, "and I'll be upstairs working on something, and they'll put on one of them. It will get to the first stanza of 'F This Town,'" he says, opting for a more euphemistic name for the tune, "and I'll start running down the stairs heading for the CD player. About that time, I'll hear my wife's footsteps as she's running in from the kitchen and hits the button on the stereo to fast-forward to the next song."

Okay, that's hardly the picture of an anarchist's life. But Fulks's catalogue of four rebellious recordings certainly defies musical norms. It embraces country's musical cornerstones, but lyrically and spiritually, it's miles from anything now heard on mainstream radio. And while so much against-the-grain 'alternative' fare is actually just countrified rock or note-for-note vintage C&W, Fulks's music is clearly something new. It fine-tunes country's best virtues while gleefully smashing its conventions and cliches.

It's an approach Fulks spelled out from the start with his 1996 debut for Bloodshot Records, Country Love Songs -- the cover of which features a shot of a man raising an ax over his spouse's head. In the disc's promotional material, Fulks defines his modus operandi: "In retro spirit," it reads, "these songs will frequently violate current country songwriting trends which hold as taboo themes of negativism, forceful expression, and points of view uncongenial to the prevailing ideology of fatuous feelgoodism." Furthermore, he notes, "they will instead reflect a modern sensibility in their emotional graphicness, vigorous iconoclasm, and sense of humor."

The material on Love Songs bears out that assessment. The CD includes letter-perfect, old-school honky-tonk (such songs as "Tears Only Fall One Way") along with tunes about white-trash delicacies ("The Scrapple Song") and unsentimental odes to aging starlets ("She Took a Lot of Pills and She Died"), among others. The disc earned raves from numerous corners of the music press and set Fulks up as a countrified rule-breaker, part modern-day Johnny Cash and part smartass kid brother of Dwight Yoakam.

South Mouthcements that image with a similar mix of iconoclastic country. The disc's aforementioned anti-Nashville number is joined by equally funny/jarring cuts such as "I Told Her Lies," "What the Lord Hath Wrought (Any Fool Can Knock Down)" and "Dirty Mouthed Flo." That particular cut is classic Fulks, a trad-sounding roadhouse romp that deals in subjects no Nashville act would touch. "When she gets in that sack with her legs spread wide, she's as pretty as a July bride," Fulks sings on the tune. The disc balances such ribald humor with styles in the tradition of the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, along with fall-on-the-floor country weepers and bloody murder ballads.

Fulks's 1998 Geffen release, Let's Kill Saturday Night, was a less twangy, more poppy collection that exchanged Americana-style pre-rock for brainy, guitar-crunched pop. He followed that disc with last year's The Very Best of Robbie Fulks, a Bloodshot collection of unreleased material and old faves. The disc featured a blend of ultra-country, rebel honky-tonk, humor and irresistible gems. In typical Fulks fashion, the disc's themes ranged from tributes to actress Jean Arthur and Bangles member Susanna Hoffs to themes of cheatin', drinkin' and the pointless nature of love.

This year Fulks has been earning praise for Big Thinkin', his collaboration with Dallas Wayne that features the guitarist performing a slab of ace tunes co-written and produced by Fulks. It just might be the finest country record of the year, brimming with witty wordplay and one more dash of "Nashville sucks" sentiment, on "If That's Country." (The latter details the current pop sickness in Music City and features a sticky-as-molasses chorus in which Fulks chimes, "You can kiss my Ozark ass if that's country.")

On the whole, Fulks's creative output is staggeringly good. His irreverant sentiments, however, have led some to consider him more of a mocker of country than a person with a true, if twisted, appreciation of the genre. He doesn't see it that way.

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