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Country Breakdown

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

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."

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 Mouth cements 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.

"I don't think it's mutually exclusive to make fun of something and appreciate it at the same time," he says. "There's definitely an outsider, cosmopolitan sensibility to my songs -- that's just who I am. But it doesn't mean that country music's not really deep in my heart, which it is. I just like to laugh.

"There's not been enough goofiness in country music," he adds. "It's been too solemn for my tastes since the last big boom. I miss the day when you'd turn on the radio and hear 'The Love Bug' or some goofy song like that."

Besides, Fulks says, what separates good music from the merely mediocre is a sense of the uncompromising individual behind it. "As far as rock and country songwriting," he says, "I like to get a feel for the kind of person that's writing it down. I think it's good that Hank Williams had the strength of character to write from his point of view and not imitate, say, Webb Pierce or Bob Wills. The same thing with Roger Miller. And it takes a little strength of character, because when you come out on the scene, there's no demand for what you do. And in the face of that, you have to stick to your guns and insist that what you do has value."

Fulks's 1993 stint in Nashville with a publishing outfit required much of his backbone. But despite some of the pointed barbs he's sent Nashville's way ("This ain't country-Western, it's just soft-rock feminist crap," he sang in "Fuck This Town"), he doesn't seem bitter about his time there. And he offers even-tempered reasons for his troubles. For starters, Fulks says, the staffer who signed him to a major country label left the company shortly after he was inked. He also says his brand of country-and-Western was too true to its roots for commercial appeal. "Alan Jackson's not going to do 'Papa Was a Steelheaded Man,'" Fulks says, "and a lot of those songs on those first two records of mine wouldn't be appropriate for Nashville pitches. They're too old-fashioned."

Then again, when Fulks recounts one particular song-pitching session, it becomes clear that those shortcomings weren't what kept him from landing songs on big-time records. While he was playing a tape of a couple of his songs for a Polygram rep, Fulks recalls, the man seemed puzzled, apparently distracted by something on the recording. "When the four-song tape finally was over, he shook his head sadly and said, 'I just don't hear it.' 'Hear what?' I said. 'Talent,' he said."

Such assessments have not come from the alternative-country realm. But Fulks has at least a few misgivings about being lumped into that bracket, or any other single category. "It's nice to have a home, because people need some kind of conceptual category to understand you," Fulks says. "But I also like to think that I'm more of a broad songwriter guy, and I sort of separate myself from the camp of a lot of the rootsy traditionalists that don't seem as lyric-driven as I am." His major-label release made that clear, and it led some critics to speculate that the disc's direction was proof of Fulks's bowing to major-label pressure. "That's totally incorrect," Fulks says of the assessment, "because the kind of music I was doing before I went with Bloodshot was a lot more along the lines of the Geffen record. And as far as my adapting to a label, that's more applicable to Bloodshot than the Geffen record.

"There were people," he adds, "that said, 'This is something different, and he's not doing it well,' which is an arguable point. But I don't think that people can say, 'You've got to keep making the same record over and over again.' That's not what I'm about." Geffen appreciated Fulks's direction, he notes, because it was "easier for them to work into some existing radio format than any Bloodshot-style material. I mean, there's no real radio outlet for old country music with cussing in it, you know?"

For now, Fulks will be avoiding such issues by launching his own label (wryly titled "Boondoggle"), which he and his wife will run. This week marks the release of the Fulks family's first release, 13 Hillbilly Giants, which is available through robbiefulks.com. It's an all-covers project of primarily obscure country tunes, the first step in Fulks's plan for artistic independence. "What's most exciting to me and my wife," Fulks says, "is trying to set up some sort of an arrangement where we can put out our own stuff without dealing with A&R-style opinions and pressures. And, of course, it's a matter of more pride in your enterprise. And it's more stimulating in so many different ways -- being able to do the exact kind of music that you want to do and go out and take an active hand in the marketing of it."

 

This new disc has already become a hit in the Fulks household. "Over the past month, my kids have been playing it about a half-dozen times a day," Fulks says. "I can hardly stand to listen to the songs now. I'm not sure how I can get out and support the record." This spring Fulks will begin recording his next batch of original songs, which will again veer from the alt-country trail. "It's definitely not roots country, and it's definitely not funny," he says of the upcoming platter, which will appear on his Boondoggle imprint. "It's going to be more like Paul Simon than Webb Pierce."

For those who love Fulks for his take on country music (a demographic he skewers with sidesplitting precision in Best Of's "Roots Rock Weirdoes"), that change of direction might be bad news. It might also suggest one more reason to lose hope of running down corporate country's old guard. Such thoughts might be foolish anyway, Fulks says, and he doesn't see a takeover happening on his behalf. "There's an ongoing appetite for certain basic things," he notes, "like blues, country, rhythm and blues and the old traditional things. If country's going to survive, and it seems like it ought to, it's got to somehow disconnect itself from the great pop juggernaut that's sweeping Nashville now. But it ain't gonna happen because of me or anybody like me. I don't think that's in the cards."


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