In 1996, Robbie Fulks and Bloodshot Records weren’t the oddest couple in the underground-music scene, but they weren’t exactly a natural pair, either.
Based in Chicago, Bloodshot was establishing its reputation as a hot spot for what it called “insurgent country,” putting out breakneck punk-meets-twang records by bands like the Waco Brothers and Old 97's.
Fulks, on the other hand, had moved to town in the mid-1980s and spent time as a sideman in a bluegrass band, a guitar teacher at Old Town School of Folk Music, and a songwriter for mainstream country acts on Nashville’s Music Row.
After years in support roles, however, he was champing at the bit for people to hear his debut solo album, Country Love Songs, which he’d recorded with punk icon Steve Albini. And Bloodshot — which had included a Fulks song on a 1993 compilation — was right across town.
“By the time I was in my thirties, I was ready to make a record for anybody,” Fulks says. “Bloodshot’s theme was narrower than the range of my interests, but I thought I could tailor myself to them and satisfy their brand, because I knew a lot about country and a little about punk rock.”
The interest was mutual. Bloodshot brass had seen Fulks playing around Chicago and knew he was both talented and different.
“He was seen as a bluegrass player, albeit an irreverent, flippant, sarcastic and original one,” says Nan Warshaw, who co-founded the label with Rob Miller and Eric Babcock in 1993. Bloodshot also liked the cover art of Country Love Songs — a grainy photo of a man swinging a hatchet at a woman on the front porch of a shack — and they thought Albini’s involvement would placate the label’s punk-leaning audience.
“We were aware that it was more traditional-country-leaning than the other records we released, and we knew we’d get some flak for releasing it,” Warshaw says. “But that seemed like all the more reason to work with Robbie and release the album.”
On June 26, 1996, Bloodshot released Country Love Songs. Some critics raved (“one of the most forward-looking evocations of the early '60s Bakersfield sound you're likely to hear,” wrote Nashville Scene), but most shrugged. And the album didn’t sell particularly well at first, moving more units in 1997 than 1996, according to Warshaw.
Which may be why, two decades later, no one except Bloodshot (and Westword!) feted the twentieth anniversary of one of country music’s modern-day masterpieces. Across thirteen tracks, Fulks tackles traditional country music (“Rock Bottom, Pop. 1,” “I’d Be Lonesome”) and honky-tonk tearjerkers (“Barely Human,” “The Buck Starts Here”), all the while showcasing his sharp sense of humor (“She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)”).
Later on the album, he sneaks in a fiddle tune (“Pete Way’s Trousers”), references ‘60s pop (“Tears Only Run One Way”), skewers Christianity (“Let’s Live Together”) and celebrates a Pennsylvania pork delicacy (“The Scrapple Song”). Backed by a bunch of top-shelf players — including fiddle wizard Casey Driessen and one of Buck Owens’s Buckaroos, the late steel-guitarist Tom Brumley — Fulks is a one-man tour of twangy sounds, with nary a note out of place and clever lines around every corner.
“My intention was to write a country record that hit all the categories that country music had sealed shut in the wake of the Garth Brooks phenomenon,” Fulks says. “A cheating song, a morbid drinking song, foreign love, food, instrumental…like a record from 1945 to 1965 might have.”
These days, Fulks thinks more tunes on Country Love Songs hold up than those on most of the dozen solo records he’s made since. More important, he fondly remembers the album as a pillar of a time when he experienced tremendous personal and professional growth after years of wondering if either would ever come his way.
“I went in a short time from being single and poor and playing line-dance music in clubs for bored people and original music in clubs for no people, to writing and recording with my heroes, having an audience, selling records, touring around the country, owning a house and being married,” Fulks says.
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“A month or two before the record came out, the idea of Marshall Crenshaw asking me to write with him, or Mandy Barnett telling me she dug my music, or Buck Owens writing me a letter full of praise would have been laughable, but a month or two after it was released…well, all that was still laughable, but it happened,” he continues. “Even though amazing things like that have happened in the years since, it seems there can be only one moment in time when you go from watching the proceedings to stepping behind the curtain to mill with the makers.”
And from Bloodshot’s perspective, that odd coupling from twenty-plus years ago is still paying off.
“Country Love Songs was not an overnight success; instead it was a slow build,” says Warshaw. “And it has demonstrated its longevity and relevance today through its continued sales. It still sounds great, timeless and classic.”
Robbie Fulks performs on Saturday, August 6, 8 p.m., at Swallow Hill Music in Englewood.