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Robbie Fulks finds life is hard, 'Georgia Hard'

By Brian Baker, May 2005

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"But other than Roger, I was listening to Gene Watson and Don Williams and - horrors - Ronnie Milsap. There's a whole idiom of country that I always felt was a little bit cheesy in the past, but I think I came to appreciate more in the middle years of my life. It's still kind of cheesy, but you can appreciate how things can simultaneously be cheesy and sincere and valuable. And Ronnie Milsap, where previously I thought he was Velveeta, turns out to be parmesan oregiano. I'm really sorry I told him to go f*** himself in that earlier song. It's a shame."

"Georgia Hard" is clearly the first album in Fulks' catalog to be so completely steeped in country tradition, from the bluegrass shimmer of "Where There's a Road" to the Eddie Rabbitt lope of "It's Always Raining Somewhere" to the Charlie Rich-tinged "Leave It to a Loser" to the hilarious novelty of "I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)," Fulks is working in a pure country atmosphere that he had previously only utilized as a component of his total sound. Although he hesitates slightly in admitting it, Fulks says he was definitely channeling certain artists specifically on certain songs on "Georgia Hard."

"I probably shouldn't say this because in a way it sort of reduces people's experiences in listening to it," prefaces Fulks, "but it really is true that in the first song on the record ('Where There's a Road'), I was specifically thinking of New Grass Revival, like the 'Friday Night in America' era. Those guys were always idols of mine. That doesn't really typify the album so much."

"I think 'Leave It To a Loser' has that sort of Dottie West/Chet Atkins/Nashville String Machine mid-'60s era kind of deal. There are other little reference points in there. That totally offbeat song in there, 'Doin' Right,' has kind of a Doctor Hook vibe to it. But as many deliberate choices as there were, there were twice as many accidental things that seeped in just because of what I was consuming at the time."

For as many genres as he has drawn upon over the course of his 10-year recording career, Fulks believes his muse has been consistent in his songwriting. To that end, Fulks feels that the songs on "Georgia Hard," while written to emulate a particular era in country music, still exhibit his own unique songwriting stamp.

"I would say that my writing tends to be based less and less on other songs, I mean I hope that it is, as I get older, " he says. "I think that I grow less and less nervous about putting my own voice and my own experience and a weird turn of phrase that might suit me, but not suit another singer and things like that into songs as I get older."

"Instead of doing what we were just talking about and sitting down and trying to write a Delmore Brothers style song, I try to write something that's more me. You really have to be egocentric in a way to say, 'I'm going to write in the Delmore Brothers style, but I'm going to bring my own unique vantage point to it and innovate on the Delmore Brothers,' where you're innovating on something that's perfect in the first place. It takes a kind of pomposity and a delusional perspective just to sit down and do it, but I think it's almost necessary to be a little delusional or else you're just doing dim second hand copies of what's already been done. I am the New Coke of country music."

Given the hybridized nature of his output to date, Fulks wanted to explore a less diluted form of country music with "Georgia Hard," and his most recent recordings, coupled with his affiliation with the Grand Ole Opry, convinced him that now was the time for his pure country record.

"I felt like I'd done the idea of synthesizing different kinds of music with country," says Fulks. "I did two records more or less in a row, which were interrupted by two other records which were put together on the side. One was 'Let's Kill Saturday Night' and the other was 'Couples in Trouble,' and they both sprang from a similar idea."

"After I'd worked on the writing of those two, from 1997 to 2001, I was really ready to dive hardcore into country music. One thing that happened was I started playing on the Grand Ole Opry every once in awhile. And the first time I did it, I was talking to people in the audience after the show and they were talking about 'We've never heard you before...what records should we buy?' and I realized there wasn't a single record out of the six that I had that I could sell them. A couple of them didn't really bear on their understanding of country music and the other ones had like big cuss words all over them. And I thought, 'Man, it'd be nice if I could come here and sell something to the 3,500 people in this audience.'"

Not surprisingly, Fulks has created an album in "Georgia Hard" that would have been a hit in the heyday of the period he's honoring, but will likely not generate too much radio outside of his already established college radio base, considering what appeals to country radio programmers today.

Fulks' other regular gig, a monthly live performance/interview show on XM Satellite Radio recorded at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, may represent the best platform artists like him to gain exposure in the current atmosphere of restrictive playlists.

"It's like the wild, wild west, and I'm really convinced that satellite radio is just going to bust through in a couple of years. It's an idea whose time has been wanting to come for so long," says Fulks. "I'm a big proponent of the idea that all the interesting work in country and probably other forms of music too, is from the outside and maybe less appreciated by a mass audience. If I can say on my deathbed that I did anything at all to help publicize and promote the other 99 percent, the good part of country music, then I'll be a happy guy."

Although it's natural for an artist to feel closer to the current crop of songs, Fulks finds himself looking at his earliest work with a great deal of affection, while simultaneously recognizing "Georgia Hard" as a career highlight.

"Over the years, I've grown closer to the first batch of songs on my first record, partly because they were so innocent, and it was a good time in my life," says Fulks. "I didn't have the ability to think about songs the way that I do now. I was just taking a wild dare when I wrote a song. So, some of those have stood up for me."

"But I think the new songs, in the execution and performance, just beats my old records by a mile. I think I go into each new record with hopefully more educated, more perceptive ears than the last record. I'm always trying to learn better how to strengthen a song and a performance."

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