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The insurgent odyssey of Robbie Fulks

By Joel Bernstein, December 1996

Robby Fulks is a shot of wry whiskey in the brew pub of country.

And so is Robbie Fulks, a slightly better known incarnation of the same person. Bloodshot, the label for which Fulks records, listed him as Robby on the two compilations introducing him to the world of what they call "insurgent country."

The label lists him as Robbie almost everywhere on his first album, "Country Love Songs."

Fulks claims to not really care, but the one place on his album where he's Robby is the cartoon he drew himself.

Even the title is a sign of Fulks' attitude. The love songs here are mostly of the dark and twisted classic country sort, where love is a gateway to Hell.

But Fulks, like Dwight Yoakam, can stretch the usually confining genre of "traditional country" far beyond its perceived boundaries without ever losing the focal point. "I tried to write an album that was just me, without any concessions," says Fulks, whose deadpan cynical humor made several appearances during an interview.

Born in York, Pa. 33 years ago, Fulks moved to North Carolina at age 11, then Virginia briefly, before attending Columbia University. He dropped out and landed in Chicago in 1983, with a wife and young child and has been based there since.

When his first wife left him in 1987 ("she inspired a lot of sad songs, but not the ones on the album," he says), Fulks joined bluegrass band Special Consensus.

A couple of years later, he turned to what he first calls rock 'n' roll, then specifies as "guitar-friendly pop, Graham Parker and Chuck Berry sounding pop."

When Bloodshot wanted to use his song "Cigarette State" for their first compilation of Chicago insurgent country, Fulks put together a country band for a gig to promote the album and then decided that was what he really wanted to do fulltime.

You'd think that living in North Carolina would have been the means of Fulks' exposure to country music.

Not so. "In high school, I was in my room most of the time, listening to folkie stuff like Bob Dylan. I was a long-haired, sensitive type. Other than the really big guys like Merle Haggard, country went right past me."

It was "Almost Blue," the Elvis Costello album of classic country songs produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill, that actually turned Fulks on to country. "I realize now that it's not that great an album, but it got me into the old stuff." He got into it with a passion.

"As much as I can afford, I get the old country. I've gotten real zealous about it." Fulks adds, "I have a pretty good knowledge of that old country style" and then ably demonstrates it in a discussion of obscure old Johnny Paycheck songs.

The one complaint frequently levelled at Fulks is that he sometimes is too cynical, too tongue-in-cheek or too clever.

But critics can't agree on which song is the prime offender, illustrating that humor is very subjective.

"Let's Live Together" is the song that would seem most likely to offend, insulting as it does just about everyone below the Mason-Dixon line and a number of people above it.

Fulks, who owns up to making that song and "Papa Was A Steel-Headed Man" deliberately "abrasive," says, "People are apparently really insensitive. Nobody has complained about the lyrics" to either.

But, he proudly adds, "I've got some more offensive songs that we do live that people have complained about."

"Let's Live Together" also interjects Butterfly McQueen's famous" I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies" line from "Gone With The Wind." That and the song "She Took A Lot of Pills (and Died)" (about a fallen film star) make it obvious that Fulks is an old-movie buff.

"I was always into old movies. I always preferred black-and-white to color." Fulks notes the "economy" of old movies, which usually had to tell their stories very quickly. He notes that in both movies and songwriting, such "economy" is becoming a lost art, adding "it's an argument against evolution." Casual listeners probably think that "Pills" is about Marilyn Monroe, but too many facts don't fit. Fulks says the song was inspired by Dorothy Dandridge, a black actress who starred in "Porgy and Bess."

"The Scrapple Song," about a ghastly sounding Eastern Pennsylvania foodstuff, obviously comes from his youth. But Fulks admits he had never actually eaten any. "My grandmother heard this song and said 'You don't know anything about Scrapple' and forced some down my throat."

Even with songs about more conventional subject matter, he has the ability to snap the listener's head around. "The Buck Starts Here" begins with a lovelorn man reaching for an old .45. Murder? Suicide? No, this 45 is a Buck Owens record.

"Barely Human" opens with the anatomically accurate, but still humorous sounding, lines "A mouth full of teeth, and a head full of brains," but turns into a classic weeper.

"A lot of themes are, by necessity, ones that have been worked before," explains Fulks. "To start out by saying 'this is how great old country is', or 'here's a song about a man who drinks too much' is just boring." His lyrics seem to bear the mark of being fussed over, and Fulks acknowledges "I'm a stickler for rewriting. I go over every line."

"Buck" is one of several songs featuring Tom Brumley, pedal steel guitarist on the great Buck Owens records.

Fulks had met Missouri roots band The Skeletons through their mutual lawyer and decided to record five songs at their studio. When he asked them to round up a pedal steel player, The Skeletons were able to recruit Brumley, who previously had worked with them.

Fulks seems like the last guy you'd expect to find in Nashville. But he's actually there quite a lot. "I write for Joe Diffie's publishing company. Nobody's cut them yet, but that's the idea," says Fulks, who teaches guitar at a Chicago school.

Acknowledging that the songs on his own album are not "Hot New Country" material, Fulks says, "I am writing happy songs for them."

The one thing that hasn't changed in country, according to Fulks, is that Nashville still believes in what he calls "the homely virtues of song-writing." "Write an arresting opening line, one line feeds into another, keep it clear and concise." He points out that modern Nashville "doesn't care about melody, but gets really picky about lyrics."

As for career goals, Fulks says "I want to do as well as I can." But he's not shy about saying "I want to make as much money as I can."

Right now, Fulks can't afford to tour because he loses money every time he takes his band on the road.

Although he has contractual obligations remaining with Bloodshot, he is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the label's Old 97s, who signed with Elektra. He hears frequently from people unable to locate his album in stores due to Bloodshot's poor distribution and "it gives me a pain in my stomach."

But tomorrow is another day. "One way or another," he says, "something is going to happen to break country music of its monotony. I'd like to be a part of that."

And when it does happen, as God is his witness, Robbie Fulks will never go hungry again.