e caught up with Robbie Fulks at an exciting and unlikely moment in his career: in spite of a prodigious and uncompromising talent for songwriting which outmodes the day's commercially dominant thinking about country music with its manic humor and stylistic depth, Fulks has just managed to secure a major label contract with Geffen after three years of work for Bloodshot Records in Chicago.
During that time, he contributed songs to three of that label's renowned "insurgent country" compilations and released two full length discs: 1996's "Country Love Songs" and "South Mouth," out Oct. 7.
The 34-year-old Fulks was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, spent several years as a college student at Columbia and has been a rooted Chicagoan for over 15 years.
During his tenure there, he filled a guitar chair with the Special Consensus Bluegrass Band; fronted the "Trailer Trash Revue," a rock and roots variety show complete with go-go dancers and frequent audience participation; worked on the staff of the Old Town School of Folk Music for 12 years and performed as part of an eight-man ensemble on a prize-winning stage production of "Woody Guthrie's American Song."
In 1993, Fulks started making a regular commute to Nashville to work on the staff of Songwriters, Inc., one of the largest and, by his account, shamelessly mediocre of the houses generating formula Hot New Country for Music Row. His experiences there are the source of a wealth of rueful anecdotes and one quaint ditty affectionately entitled "Fuck This Town." He takes obvious pleasure from the prospect of being able to live the whole thing down. Just ask him.
The following conversation took place Sept. 23 by phone from Fulks's home in Chicago, during a break in a long stint of shows carrying him through the midwest and Great Lakes towns through the rest of 1997.
CST: Just yesterday, I was reading an article about you where your new A&R man at Geffen (Brian Long) was quoted to the effect that they were considering you as a candidate for working on "t.v. themes and movie scores." Was that what you had in mind when you went with a major label?
Fulks: Hell no! (Laughter) No, I left that kind of writing behind when I gave up the hackwork at Songwriters, Inc., and I'm not going back any time soon if I can help it. I just think the people at Geffen are trying to cut me a wide berth, just to see how my work might change over the next couple of years.
CST: What precipitated the move to Geffen?
Fulks: My obligation to Bloodshot was up, and the notices that the music received were good enough that I was finally beginning to draw decent crowds at shows. Like most independent labels, Bloodshot doesn't have the funds to support lots of touring, and my first priority is to continue building a fan base.
I will say, though, that Bloodshot did a fine job with these past two records, and I certainly appreciate the work they've done around Chicago in general. They've been very good for the local music scene.
Also, and this may seem funny after the "soundtracks and t.v." quote, but of the major labels I talked to, Geffen was the one which seemed least committed to placing stylistic constraints on me. They seemed eager enough to have me stretch out as a writer - and, you know, I've done long stints playing bluegrass and old time rave-up rock & roll as well as the honky tonk country I've been writing over the past couple of years - and that's what really sold me.
CST: Had you been writing any country tunes during those other gigs? Was it a long-term ambition?
Fulks: No so much, really... well, I'd say there are country elements in every kind of music I've played, so it was always there, there just wasn't much strategy involved. I just fell into the Nashville writing job because my local gigging with the "Trailer Trash Revue," though fun, just wasn't paying the rent.
So, I started hacking way, you know and ironically this local country group in Chicago called the Sundowners ended up doing one of my songs. (Bloodshot Records co-owner) Nan Warshaw heard it, and then called to ask if I was interested in contributing something to the first of the label's compilations. It was just felicitous, really, that I had a backlog of tunes which hadn't been successfully farmed out to Music Row when the call came. 'Course, I was also writing a few things, just to balance off the drudge work, which had enough edge to them that I knew no one in Nashville would touch them under any circumstance.
CST: Do you have any stories from your time at Songwriters, Inc. you can repeat without fear of legal action?
Fulks: Sure, sure. For all of the rigid style and content guidelines you have to deal with in the current Nashville climate, there's no accounting for people having the brains to get the basics right. For instance, a couple of years ago I pulled together this really sappy tune called "If Hearts Could Tell Time," which I figured would sell. I got it back from the publisher with a note saying that there needed to be a comma in the title. I looked at it again, couldn't figure out what she was talking about, and called her up to see what she had in mind - she tells me, "Sure, you need a comma between the "t" and the "s" in "Hearts." Well, that was just about the end for me: how can you work in a writing-oriented business when you don't know an apostrophe from a comma, or how to use a possessive contraction? I really had to hold myself back... and while that's just a basic grammatical thing, I think some of that lack of competency feeds the "song mill" thinking, where any style of writing which has real characteror which takes chances is called into question.