Just three years ago, the former Bloodshot Records artist may have been pegged for a swank country crooner who could play some pretty tasty guitar. With albums like "Country Love Songs" and "South Mouth," Fulks displayed a real talent for walking a fine line between rootsy rock and smart-ass cornpone.
The result? Hooky, country-esque songs that lay just this side of uncategorizeable.
With his new, major label debut on Geffen, "Let's Kill Saturday Night," Fulks is reaching a little further. The first two songs bring to mind not the Opry, but rather Graham Parker or a mid-career Warren Zevon. The pace is furious, the tone aggressive, and the sound gets under your skin.
"It starts hard, then deepens and goes off on different tangents," Fulks says of his new effort in a recent interview. "Which is acceptable to me."
Listeners must make a big jump from the smashing "Caroline" to "Pretty Little Poison," a wrenchingly sweet duet with Lucinda Williams, but it's worth the trip.
And the hooks just keep on coming with tunes like "She Must Think I Like Poetry" and the more subtle "Take Me To The Paradise."
"I was ready to do something different," Fulks explains. "I had done two albums that were more or less the same idea, and I had more songs sitting around that weren't Bloodshot-style songs."
Fulks refers, of course, to the Chicago-based record company, the so-called "insurgent country" label that spawned The Old 97's among others.
Bloodshot stylings usually mean the songs twang loud, and Fulks was showing signs of bucking that tradition on his last album, 1997's acclaimed "South Mouth."
Tunes like "F--k This Town" bristled just a little too hard; the twang elements were overwhelmed, and perhaps that's the intent. The ditty contains a blistering opinion on the state of modern Nashville.
And the new album blisters as well. Fulks says he wasn't necessarily thrilled with the rocking start of "Saturday Night," but realizes "in the modern world of radio, we have to put the stuff targeted at radio right up at the front."
As for the sound, Fulks says, "It wasn't really manipulated much or computerized or digitized. It's pretty much live performances through microphones, and it has a great deal of spontaneous, unplanned moments. To me, that's totally crucial in making music."
The changing direction and multifaceted format seem to suit an artist who had a false start as an actor in musical theatre. At the tender age of eight, Fulks had a part in "Annie, Get Your Gun." By and by, he found himself taking a stab at playing bluegrass with Special Consensus before getting into country.
He hasn't completely abandoned acting, he says. "I guess, in a way, I'm not really who I am on stage. Maybe there is a little bit of that in there."
"When I'm singing on stage, I'm really kind of trying to find a place where my personality and the mood of the song and the moment and the audience intersect. I'm sort of reaching for something that's there and that's true and that's me. You might call it acting, but it's not really acting. It's more authentic than the word acting would imply."
Whatever the method behind the music, Fulks' trademark smart-arsery is still in evidence on the new album.
On "You Shouldn't Have," an "I-caught-you-sweetheart" ode to a cheating lover, Fulks tells a soon-to-be-ex: "You did what you done, and it must have been fun, 'cause the knees are ripped out from your stockings/Next time you crawl through the gutter, you'd better cover your tracks." This all comes over a wry guitar line and some muted barrelhouse tinklin - a real, rip-snorting, Southern-fried skewering.
Fulks has covered this territory before, usually to near-hilarious effect. On "South Mouth," he tells the tale of a Romeo who gets what he wants from women - and life - simply by telling all involved exactly what they want to hear. The song is called "I Told Her Lies," and it shows how "I love you" doesn't have to mean just that when it's being used for other purposes.
Humor has a place in songwriting if it's handled correctly, Fulks believes. "It's really self-defeating and boring to me to have songs on records that read like, 'Hey, there little dinosaur,' or 'It's moving day,'" he says. "There's got to be some core of sincerity and lived experience, even in funny songs, and I think that's what makes them listenable over and over again."
The genre-hopping "Saturday Night" album will certainly not be Fulks' last. He says he would like to work on at least three different albums, each with its own style. Among them: "an even poppier album," he says, as well as "a toned-down, kind of acoustic, kind of singer-songwriter type album." Fulks says his current contract with Geffen calls for three albums, with a three-album option after that.
But Fulks' dream is getting an earlier era of country greats circa 1940 and 1950 to sing songs he has written. Bill Carlyle, for example, "is getting on in years, but he still manages to belt out a pretty good song," Fulks says.
He'd also like to get Johnny Paycheck together with Buddy Emmons, and invite Frankie Miller, Porter Wagoner and Jean Shepard to take part, if possible. "I'm truly hoping that this next album is successful enough that I can get started on that pretty soon," he says. "I expect that to be the apex of my career if it goes right."
Will the audience stand up and take notice? And will Fulks current fan base move with him as he moves out into other musical experiments?
The singer's desire to move from genre to genre "tends to frighten people so much, and justifiably," Fulks says. "Markets have a hard time with it, and audiences do too, to some extent. But I think audiences are more open than the people pushing the buttons, because I think in this case, quality is really the thing."