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Robbie Fulks

Although he made his debut with 1996's Country Love Songs, Chicago singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks really established his persona with a track from his 1997 record South Mouth: "Fuck This Town" was a kiss-off to Nashville after Fulks' bad experiences working for a music-publishing company in the post-Garth Brooks gold rush. The song perfectly represented the anti-establishment resolve of the then-burgeoning alt-country scene, and it became the definitive Fulks statement—to his dismay.

A serious, unironic student of country-music history, Fulks rebelled against that limiting precedent, beginning with his 1998 major-label debut Let's Kill Saturday Night, where he all but abandoned his silly side and his earlier work's straight-up twang in favor of slick, poppy songs. The record never took off, and in 2000, Fulks returned to Bloodshot with The Very Best Of Robbie Fulks. Fans confused by Saturday Night's slick veneer took comfort in the familiar levity of "Roots Rock Weirdoes" and "White Man's Bourbon." But that Fulks disappeared again with 2001's Couples In Trouble. The self-released, self-financed record veered into noisy experimentalism, with Fulks pushing country's boundaries and receiving critical acclaim in the process. That year, he also released 13 Hillbilly Giants, an album of little-known country covers.

Fulks takes another left turn on his new album, Georgia Hard, released this month on Yep Roc Records. Neither traditional nor boundary-pushing per se, it explores the smooth-sounding country music of the '70s and early '80s. But it also has its share of vintage Robbie Fulks: "Countrier Than Thou" is another uptempo kiss-off track, this time directed at country traditionalists and hipsters, and "I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)" is a comic duet with Fulks' wife, Donna. Before the release of Georgia Hard, Fulks spoke with The A.V. Club about adultery, his musical restlessness, and the intractable appeal of "Fuck This Town."

The Onion: What does the title Georgia Hard reference? You didn't live in Georgia, did you?

Robbie Fulks: No, it was named on the spur of the moment. It was called Reality Country, and then it was pointed out to me that that's a really stupid title–which I'm just sorry somebody hadn't pointed out to me sooner. It came up on my website; somebody mentioned that was a really dumb title. And I said to my wife, "Is that a dumb title?" She was like, "Oh yeah, everybody thinks it's a dumb title, but everybody's too scared to tell you." [Laughs.]

O: Both the title track and "Where There's A Road" have a strong autobiographical nature, which your previous records have lacked.

RF: Yeah, I really tried not to write that kind of song for all my life, and I don't know, I felt like giving myself license to do that the last couple of years. I guess at a certain point, you think, "Well, I'm old enough. Maybe I can give this a try and not come off sounding too pretentious or stupid."

O: Is that what's kept you from doing it in the past?

RF: I don't like the "wise" voice in songwriting. I don't like the voice of experience and wisdom that a lot of people go for–and it bugs me, that self-romanticizing "I've been everywhere, listen and learn from me" shtick. I've tried to avoid it, but in doing so, I've come up with plenty of slight songs about cars or Susanna Hoffs or whatever. So maybe that's a downside too.

O: The new one almost seems like a country concept record. The cover and some of the songs have an "old" feeling. Did you have a concept and a cohesive sound in mind?

RF: Yeah, it was definitely intended to be a look back toward that era. I guess '70s, but '70s in mind, as 1965 to 1980, or '85 even. I was just really feeling strongly in love with that whole style of music over the last couple of years. And again, just getting older and getting middle-aged and being a guy with a wife and family and mortgage and a house in the suburbs and all that stuff, I guess. Probably this kind of music took on more resonance than it did for me when I was 15. But I think there's a lot of earnest soulfulness to it, and I don't know, for whatever reason, this music–I'm talking about Don Williams and Mel Street and Gene Watson, especially Gene Watson, all that stuff–has really just bowled me over in the last couple of years. And probably when I'm in my 70s, I'll be listening to Garth Brooks, and then on from there. [Laughs.] Always trying to catch up with distinct trends. It's old, so it's good!

O: But you've also said country music has been on the decline for the past 30 years–that starts squarely in the '70s.

RF: I said that? [Laughs.]

O: If this is the kind of stuff that led country to its current, awful state, how can you resolve that in your mind? For instance, in "Fuck This Town," you say "And I thought they'd struck bottom back in the days of Ronnie Milsap." But now you say you've been listening to Milsap.

RF: Yeah, that's a case in point. Ronnie Milsap is a guy that I have to say I was wrong about to an extent. Like, his first couple of records, I found out when I actually bothered to sit down and listen to them, had loads of good stuff on them and loads of good singing on them. He sings better than I'll ever dream of being able to sing. And so in that sense, it was rash of me to mock him–but the later stuff still sucks, you know. [Laughs.] Right after those first couple of records–right into the crapper.

Take Ronnie as an example of the progress or regress of the last however-long in music. He comes along in the mid-'70s, and he's got hits by Dan Penn and great writers like that, and the records are constructed by actual, in-studio performances... At this point, country music–and indeed. every other form of popular music–hit records are constructed bar-by-bar by engineers sitting in front of a screen. That's how I differentiate a lot of these questions of quality: Are records performances, or are they mechanical constructions?

Then too in country, there is this syndrome of always playing catch-up with pop trends and trying, in a sort of half-hearted or half-aware way, to ape sounds in pop music. I think that's probably been a malevolent trend overall in country music; I think that's been responsible for some bad sounds in country music. I think country does something really well, and when it stops doing it, it starts being a pale imitation of pop music that betrays what's really important and valuable about itself.

O: And you think that really began to change with Garth Brooks?

RF: Well, it just changed the whole industry so that a hit album was something that sold 14 million copies, and all the sudden you couldn't have a country song that sold a million copies and made much difference to Music Row anymore. Suddenly, it was this mega-Disney World kind of a atmosphere on Music Row. So I think just by changing the business model, which isn't his fault or anything, but just by his massive success, he had a lot of negative influence on the art of country music–because of course, the art of country music, the art of anything, you have to be able to take risks, and [there's] the whole risk aversion of having to sell 10 million records.

But what country does, I think, is tell simple, universal stories that are specifically aimed at what you might call "common people," but can be appreciated by anybody through the honesty and the language and the quiet craft with which they're made.

O: How did writing Georgia Hard with this unifying concept in mind compare to writing your other albums?

RF: I didn't find it really a concept too much. It's what I was listening to at the time, and there certainly weren't that many stylistic boundaries. [Georgia Hard] has that cut-up novelty song on it, and the hokey murder ballad on the other hand. The boundaries are really wide on that record.

O: It seemed like there weren't a lot of boundaries on Couples In Trouble, either.

RF: Yeah, it wasn't too much of a country record. It was more of a Chicago record, I think.

O: Exactly. You don't like to repeat yourself musically, so was Georgia Hard a reaction to the more experimental nature of Couples In Trouble?

RF: I think so, yeah. I think I just really missed writing country songs after what I was doing. It's like writing haikus–it's such an exact and disciplined form.

O: Thematically, it seems like adultery has always been a popular theme for you, but it's all over this record: "All You Can Cheat," "Doin' Right (For All The Wrong Reasons)," "You Don't Want What I Have," "If They Could Only See Me Now," and even to a certain degree on "I'm Gonna Take You Home." What's going on?

RF: I don't know–I guess I'm obsessed with it, I would say. [Laughs.] I must think about it a lot. I couldn't really say, you know? It's probably one of the constants in life, especially once you're married. It's just like the wolf at the door; it's something that's always there, even in the happiest of marriages, which mine is. It's always kind of a vague, usually unarticulated threat that's waiting to destroy your life, like a big cinderblock falling down on your head when you walk down the street. It's one of those remote things you always worry about. And I think the form that I'm working in, too, kind of brings it to the fore. Especially in '70s country music, my God, it's like the most sex-obsessed music that you could ever dream of. It's just drenched in carnality.

O: You recorded this on your own nickel, then shopped it around. Why did you do it that way? You're an established artist.

RF: I just like to be left alone, really. [Laughs.] I like to be alone and independent. I was tied to Bloodshot for six records or something like that–a lot of records. They had opinions–and you know, why not, they've got you under a big contract, and they're paying for the record–and mostly, they don't like this song so well, and they don't think that should be on the record. It's all within their rights as people who are paying for the music, I guess, and then you know it got a bit more severe [with Geffen], with more money in it, and the idea of getting a hit was a little more prominent in the recording process. Really, since that record... I won't get to make that many records, you know? How many records do you make in a career? Ten records if you're lucky. It's just like a finite number. I would much rather spend time saving the money, and then spend my own money, and not worry about anybody's opinion except my own, than compromise this little point and this little point and end up with a product that I can't really 100 percent go out and defend to somebody like you. It's just saving up the money that's the bad part.

O: It's not the cheapest proposition, even though the album only took you 15 days to do.

RF: Yeah, it was like a $47,000 record... It's a pretty expensive little record, but still, I'd rather do it that way, and for sure there's no sane independent-record person that's going to give me that much money to do a record. That's another part of it: getting to make your own budget decisions. For example, on the first record, I got to work with Tom Brumley, who's a really seminal steel player from the Buck Owens band in the '60s. When I found out his availability and his price–which I think was $400 per session–the label came back and said, "Nah, it's too much money." I said, "C'mon, it's Tom Brumley." So I just said, "Whatever, I'll pay for it." I think it's a worthwhile expenditure. It's not expensive in the overall scheme of things. But every little decision like that that comes up... little things like that are so pleasing to splurge on.

O: Did you just license the record to Yep Roc, or do they own it?

RF: No, I went out with the idea of somebody owning it, mostly because I wanted to get as much of that $47,000 back as I could... I got most of it back when I signed with Yep Roc, so you know, whatever, I'll have to make the other 10 back off it.

O: Yep Roc has been doing a lot lately, particularly with people who used to play on Bloodshot, like The Sadies and Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers. It's like Bloodshot isn't the only game in town anymore.

RF: They definitely have to watch over their shoulder now for sure. Yep Roc's got a lot going for it. Principally, the thing that drew me over there, the guy that runs it is one of the most easy-to-get-along-with guys that you'd ever meet in that world. He's a really good listener, in the way people say Saul Bellow was. [Laughs.] He's just really, intently attentive to things. Besides that, you can't help but open magazines and see these four-color ads for Yep Roc Records in somewhat expensive magazines. I don't know where they get the resources, but apparently they have them. Glenn [Dicker, the label's manager] only explained it by saying that they've grown the company really kind of steadily and smartly over the years. They started with the distribution business. [When] I went down and visited there, we were shocked there was a huge, UPS-style warehouse on one half of the building, and on the other half, they've got the label business. Just on the label side, there's probably 25 people working in different offices and stuff. It's kind of huge, compared to... I was used to the Bloodshot thing, where it's like four super-committed people down in the basement working 15-hour days, so something kind of productive and exciting is happening for sure at Yep Roc.

O: How do you think fans are going to react to Georgia Hard?

RF: I have no clue, you know? My reaction to it is kind of based on the playing, really. The playing is the thing that really sounds startlingly good to me on this record. However good the songs or the singing are, I can't really judge myself. That's for other people to decide. I think, based on playing, it will be well-received. I hope it will be. And I think my ear just gets better almost in spite of myself, just from doing it time after time over the years, knowing when to stop working on a song, or knowing how to improve a song, or knowing how to arrange a song.

O: Has your playing changed much? Is there more of an economy to it, like knowing when to stop?

RF: No, I've declined as a player in some ways, because I haven't been doing the bluegrass thing. If you don't use those chops every night like I was when I was playing with [Chicago bluegrass collective Special Consensus], they just kind of go away and atrophy. I think my sense of time has gotten a little bit better over the years, but really, in so many ways, I find at 42, you're the player you were when you were 15, just not as on fire and out to change the world, maybe. The ways that you can improve are so subtle and limited, I find. When I was 15, I had been playing guitar for four years, and now that I've been really playing for however long, the difference is kind of negligible, I'm depressed to say. [Laughs.]

O: That's disheartening.

RF: I played a lot less on this record. I played rhythm on most of the songs, but not even on all that. Before, I would have played rhythm on everything naturally, but I didn't on this one. And I didn't play any solos or anything, so I really restricted my playing on this record.

O: Do you feel like there's no set place for you? It's like you're too country for the indie world, but you're too much of a smartass for the mainstream country world.

RF: I'm too old at this point, I think.

O: So does it feel like there's not really a comfortable place?

RF: Oh yeah, for sure, and I think a surprising amount of it has to do with where I live. If I lived in Austin or Nashville, it wouldn't be quite so strange, what I'm doing. But the fact that I live here... People think there's a scene here, there's a community here, and then where you live affects the sound of your music. All of those things are only slightly true–none of it's really essential to what I'm doing. I could live in Missoula, Montana, and do what I'm doing, and it wouldn't sound that different. We're all influenced by the records we hear. I don't sit around listening to Chicago music day after day; I listen to the same things everybody else does, more or less. I think it's confusing being a country singer in Chicago. It seems to me the sort of thing you have to explain, you know? Really, I just ended up here by accident.

O: It seems like you've stepped away from the guy who wrote "Fuck This Town." You don't really play it...

RF: I tried to move away from that the day after I wrote it! [Laughs.]

O: Right, but the onesheet that comes with this record mentions it several times. Has it been tough to shake that smartass persona and have people look at you more as a straight songwriter?

RF: It is hard to shake, yeah. To tell you the truth, I don't understand at all why it should be so... It's like, if you put out a record, and two of the songs on the record are funny, then all the sudden you're a guy that writes funny songs. The other 13 don't count for anything. It's very strange how the funny songs apparently rise up in people's brains to pollute the rest of the catalogue, you know? [Laughs.] Yeah, I don't get that at all. Somebody wrote about this record that it was mostly on the funny side, and I'm always really surprised to see it. Again, it has two songs with laugh lines in it.

But musically, to get back to that question, I haven't helped matters by doing different-sounding records. That's been a way that I've insisted on indulging myself making records. It's always been important to me, but I'm pretty sure that it's handicapped me too.

O: That could make it hard to figure out who the real Robbie Fulks is.

RF: My records sound more like each other than any of them sounds like a Kim Richey record, and almost all of them are performed live. Like I was saying earlier, it's proved to be kind of important to me philosophically, and for efficiency and other reasons. And a lot of them have the same players on them, you know? Robbie Gjersoe plays on Hillbilly Giants and Let's Kill Saturday Night, and on songs that sound totally dissimilar and have totally different guitar tones, but you can kind of tell it's his hands on the neck of the guitar. It's his approach that puts together a guitar phrase, so I think there's continuity there, but it's not in-your-face continuity like you'd hear from one Mutt Lange-recorded track on a Shania Twain record to the next Mutt Lange-recorded track. There's no continuity imposed by marketing concerns–unfortunately. [Laughs.]