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The insurgent odyssey of Robbie Fulks

By Bill Sacks, October 1997

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CST: Did you have people in Nashville you could commiserate with?
Fulks: Sure, there are plenty of people working in Nashville, some of them very talented, who feel that the demands being placed on writers are not only shortsighted, but ultimately dangerous for the future of country music. You need to understand, though, that I was commuting from Chicago to Nashville on a regular basis in order to work that job, and while that was not easy, it did give me a bit of a buffer. I think the worst cynics in Nashville are the ones who can't seem to get out, the ones whose whole sense of what it means to make music for a living is attached to that place and its system.

CST: What kind of perspective does living and playing around Chicago give you that life in Nashville wouldn't?
Fulks: On the one hand, it gave me a chance to see that there was an audience for country music beyond the "ideal" audience which the people on Music Row are trying to cater to - that there's a world of listening and playing which exists, in large part, in spite of what Nashville represents. I've also had the opportunity to get to know a number of very fine musicians working in the northern midwest working in a number of different styles, all of whom really respected one another and weren't hung up on themselves.
On the other hand, working as a country performer in Chicago, someone with a clear-cut style and a record to prove it made me see that categorization actually works. Like lots of musicians, I tend to strain against anything which feels like pigeon-holing, but the fact is that I spent years of my life trying to draw more than 100 people to one of my shows doing "uncategorized" roots music - it was some country, a bit of rockabilly, all of it a little loony - and I failed. Bloodshot's marketing, their creation of a scene within Chicago which hadn't really had much of a collective identity before, changed the whole dynamic of what I could do on stage. It also made me realize that the best way to approach my writing was to go after a distinctive voice of my own - to try to make records which were as unique as those of the musicians I admire most.
CST: Can you remember the first country records you really felt strongly about?
Fulks: Like a lot of people who're trying to push the stylistic envelope, I came to it through Gram Parsons, both his solo albums and his work with The Byrds. And actually, I found out about Parsons because of a cover of "I'm Your Toy" (aka "Hot Burrito #1") on Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue" album. From there, I just worked my way back to Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Hank Thompson and the rest. That kind of education in reverse has been really useful - when I think of "Country Music," I think about its far limits as well as its classic voices, and those extremes always suggest possibilities waiting to be explored.

CST: Are there other musicians coming up now whom you regard as sharing that sensibility?
Fulks: Absolutely, some people who are really doing interesting things. For instance, there's Tim Carroll: he's a Nashville writer who's working on wedding punk and old time, honky tonk country music. Now, he's far from the first person to try that - it's been going on for at least 15 years now, it's practically its own subgenre - and it seems like there are dozens of groups, many of them made up of kids who are really just discovering country music for the first time, flying by the seats of their pants - but Tim is different to my ears because he's able to generate a credible personality within his songs. He's not just melding forms, he's indulging an attitude, a perspective which is very much his own.
There's also the Moseleys, who approach roots music from the same sort of direction Nick Lowe came from, with sharp pop instincts and powerful melodies.
Also, there's a guy in Milwaukee by the name of Mike Fredrickson who's doing really solid work on an indie basis - his stuff is more "folk" than it is mainstream country, but he knows his music as well as most people you'd meet working in Nashville, and he's got ambitions I admire.

CST: What about older musicians whose work has fallen out of circulation? Anyone whose albums deserve reissuing?
Fulks: Oh man, where do I start? I can't believe Joe Carson's "In Memoriam" is out of print, and I'd like to know if he did anything more - it's the only record of his I've ever heard.
I'd like to see Bill Carlisle receive the attention he deserves - he's got decades of interesting stuff in his back catalog, but it's nearly impossible to find.
Then there's Benny Martin, who played fiddle for Flatt & Scruggs and made one or two albums under his own name - those sides are just great, but I don't believe they've ever been issued on cd.

CST: You're not shy about championing unheralded talents; do you have any collaborative ambitions?
Fulks: Absolutely. I got to know Al Anderson (formerly the frontman of NRBQ) in Nashville, who's a great songwriter I'd like to do something with in the near future. I can definitely appreciate his versatility as a writer and player.
Ideally, I'd love to be able to work with Alex Chilton or T-Bone Burnett. They've each done records which stand up well over time, and they both know how to produce. Aside from that, I guess I've been meaning to seek out Doc Watson for some time now, and I'd be glad for the opportunity to work with him.

CST: What lies ahead for the near future?
Fulks: Once I've had a chance to work through the new material on the road for a while, I'll be returning for more recording time at both of the studios where I cut the tracks for "South Mouth," Steve Albini's place in Chicago and Lou Whitney's studio in Springfield, Mo. It's a ways off, though, because I'm still working on song ideas in the formative stages.
But in the meantime, I'm looking forward to putting together a compilation project of new tracks by old-time country greats for Geffen, which I just received permission to move ahead with a short time ago. I'm going to do the production and writing for people like Jean Shepherd and Bill Carlisle who are still in command of tremendous talent, but haven't seen the inside of a recording studio in many years. It'll probably be something I work on intermittently over two years's time, but I'll be getting started right away. It's the kind of tribute those players deserve - a chance to be recognized on their own merits rather than just as somebody's influences.

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