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Just plain (Robbie) Fulks

By Joel Bernstein, January 2000

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For "Country Love Songs," Fulks made a list of "all the kinds of songs people don't do in country music any more - the food song, the death song, the Latin rhythm song, the xenophobic song - which I think have always been a strain of country music."

For all the potentially offensive words Fulks has written, only one has really caused him problems. In "Fuck This Town," "South Mouth's" bitter swipe at Nashville, he used the line "faggot in a hat." Although intended as an insult to country singers rather than homosexuals, it is the latter group whose ire was aroused.

"In hindsight," says Fulks, "the word faggot just gets people angry, more than atheism or the joys of adultery. It's the kind of playground talk that gets people agitated, but that didn't occur to me at the time."

"The whole song is kind of juvenile. It's not like it's a mature, balanced thing, and all of a sudden I say the word faggot. The sector really keeping people in the closet is Nashville with its strict gentility."

Fulks has soured on the song for other reasons as well. "There's a problem with that song and 'Scrapple' and some others that people don't regard me as a serious songwriter. When I put ("Fuck This Town") on the record, I thought, 'It's like a bombshell and a lot of people will remember it. For me, that album made a case for me song-by-song as a country songwriter. It wouldn't have fit thematically on any other album, and I thought the other songs were enough to outweigh it."

Nothing illustrates Fulks' image problem more than the song on "Very Best," called "I Just Want To Meet The Man." To these ears, this ballad of a man visiting his ex is one of the most chilling country songs in recent years, precisely because nothing actually happens.

"Omission is a time-honored technique. In 'South Richmond Girl,' there's an instrumental passage as soon as the guy walks in and finds his wife in bed with another man. When (the instrumental) ends, he's already in jail. It's not only easier (for a songwriter), but more effective," says Fulks.
This listener is left with the impression that there's an unsung verse to follow in which all hell breaks loose.

Other people, apparently convinced that everything Fulks writes is meant as humor, or at least irony, react much differently. The song was originally recorded for "Country Love Songs," but the label was confused about its intent. They weren't alone.

"At The Bluebird (a Nashville club), people were yukking it up like it was an Allan Sherman song. At a club, someone yelled when it ended 'Was that supposed to be funny?'"

For the record, Fulks says "You can laugh at anything, even a train wreck, but I certainly meant it seriously. The situation, and the way it unfolds, is not funny."

"The next record I'm working on has got nothing funny. It's all downer songs. It's really serious. There's not a lot of country on it either. It's just what I was hearing in my head. But I'm tired of being in this pigeon-hole of the insurgent, alt.-country generally, but the novelty thing especially."

Many fans were disappointed by his more serious and more rock Geffen album.

Not Fulks.

"'Let's Kill Saturday Night' is my favorite album. It's the most various, best recording, best performances. I had more money, and I think I used it well. I like the variety better than the sequencing. I wouldn't have frontloaded it (with rock) so much. As a songwriter, you try to find all sorts of ways to write songs. There are other ways then going from Point A to Point B with a linear narrative."

"I would go on a major label again. As an abstraction, a bad major is better than a good indie in a lot of ways. You can get advances when you need them, they can put you on tour, they can get stuff into more stores and on radio if they push it." On the other hand, "other than the advance, it's almost impossible to make money on a major."

Fulks does describe his stint on Geffen as "a horrible year," but indicates that was largely due to Geffen's unsettled status and their (possibly resultant) lack of radio promotion on his behalf.

"They let me make the record I wanted to make," he adds in the label's defense.

Some fans complain that Fulks is too good at country to be doing as much rock as he does. "I play to a lot of rock fans. Young people in clubs have more Led Zeppelin than Buck Owens. Anything I do, it's because I think I can speak the language, and it's from my heart. I don't put any restraints on myself. Maybe I should. Maybe it's hard for people to bounce around like that. But I'm bored when people do the same song for two hours or put out the same record over again."

Fulks is enthused by his brief experience with Internet selling. "I think it's a very exciting sales tool. We're talking about radically expanding our Internet store and maybe recording other people. It's very exciting to communicate directly with customers."

Fulks adds,"I do still have a lot of audience-building to do," indicating that only a small percentage of his fans will currently buy from the net and his current fan base is not large enough to absorb that shrinkage.

Considering the dark nature of many of his songs, perhaps Fulks' ultimate irony is how normal he seems when not in his performer/songwriter persona. He's a happily married suburbanite with two young children (plus a teenage son from a previous marriage who hates dad's music). Fulks says his songs "are not about my life. If they were, they'd be a lot less interesting. My life is pretty dull."

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