Week 37: Robbie Fulks, The Alternative

Week 37: Robbie Fulks, The Alternative

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

When asked by a disc jockey back in the day about the newfangled “progressive country,” Emmylou Harris famously quipped that her music with Gram Parsons was less progressive than regressive. Harris and Parsons weren’t as interested in taking country to new and unexpected places as they were in returning to the basics. The same can be said of alt-country.

Like everyone else, I have a problem with labels. They are inherently reductive, they ghettoize genres and movements, and they often feel like meaningless buzzwords or commercial selling points rather than useful categories. Yet as a critic, I find them to be a necessary evil.

Robbie Fulks is the first artist in the Nashville Or Bust series who qualifies as alt-country, a label I abhor, yet find strangely useful. Alt-country has always felt like a smug, self-congratulatory way of saying “country that doesn’t sound like the glossy bullshit they play on the radio.”

I have a strange history with Fulks. I vaguely remember going to a country festival at a park here in Chicago and being blown away by his music. “Wow,” I thought, “Fulks is fantastic. I need to check out his albums.” Then I promptly forgot about him. Then a few months back, a Nashville Or Bust reader whose name I unfortunately do not recall sent me an insanely elaborate 16-disc homemade compilation of country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, and country-rock, titled A Tombstone Every Mile. One of the discs contained the song “She Took A Lot Of Pills And Died,” and I was blown away all over again. 

In a veritable repeat of my Gary Stewart experience, I heard one song and was immediately a fan for life. “She Took A Lot Of Pills And Died” embodies everything that makes Fulks great. It’s gleefully irreverent without being cruel, literate without being pretentious, laugh-out-loud funny, and catchy as hell. Fulks was able to capture the essence of so many show-business tragedies in eight brutally unsentimental, ruthlessly efficient words: She took a lot of pills and died. Marilyn Monroe. Edie Sedgwick. In the harsh light of day, their tragic downfall really boils down to taking a lot of pills and dying.

Pithiness remains one of Fulks’ superpowers. Fulks’ hate-hate relationship with the Nashville/country-music establishment can be summed up in the title of a standout track on South Mouth, his second album: “Fuck This Town.” Fulks loves words too much to waste them. 

Like a lot of alt-country artists, Fulks loves country, especially its past, even as he despises what it has become. “The Buck Starts Here,” the third track on Country Love Songs, Fulks’ magnificent 1996 solo Bloodshot debut, pledges allegiance to the boys from Bakersfield with a honky-tonk account of a case of heartbreak that can only be calmed by listening to Buck Owens. Independent rock icon Steve Albini uses a bare-bones production on Country Love Songs that hearkens back to the forceful simplicity of the Bakersfield sound, while Tom Brumley, a member of Owens’ backing band, The Buckaroos, provides an extra jolt of old-school country authenticity.

Fulks has a genius for twisting and subverting country tropes. On “Papa Was a Steel-Headed Man,” for example, he turns the typical country ode to the humble-but-proud patriarch on its ear with a tongue-in-cheek homage to a father who was plenty simple, but also dimwitted and bigoted. The song starts out conventionally enough, with lyrics about a simple man who “never had a thing to show but the muscle in his arm.” But just when the typical country song would be ramping up for a climactic burst of sentimentality, Fulks veers in the opposite direction, opining of the titular dumb-ass:

He couldn’t read a book and keep his lips from moving
Or add two and two without looking at his hand
He thought laughter was a vice and Jews were evil
I declare! He was a steel-headed man.

In his own smartass, casual way, Fulks makes a serious, trenchant point about country’s mindless idealization of common people. Simple isn’t inherently better than complicated, rural isn’t inherently better than urban, and the uneducated don’t intuitively have more wisdom than folks with Ivy League degrees. Common people can be kind, big-hearted, and deceptively savvy, but they can also be mean, prejudiced, and petty. 

Fulks is equally adept at lampooning country conventions and delivering them straight. So along with funny little ditties like “Every Kind Of Music But Country” (as in “she likes”) that Roger Miller would be proud to call his own, Fulks excels at tear-in-your beer laments like “Tears Only Run One Way,” which undercuts the melancholy of the lyrics with a peppy Merseybeat rhythm and the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris-styled “We’ll Burn Together.” Country Love Songs announced the arrival of a major talent. 

Though not as inspired or fresh, Fulks’ follow-up, South Mouth, shares many of its predecessors’ strengths, balancing humor with heartbreak and goofiness with rock-solid songcraft. There are humorous ditties (“I Told Her Lies,” the aforementioned “Fuck This Town,” “Dirty-Mouthed Flo”), but also the dark Southern gothic of “South Richmond Girl” and “Heart, I Wish You Were Here,” both of which owe a debt to the Louvin Brothers. Fulks was comfortable with the sum of country music, from the goofiest lark to the most funereal dirge. He’d tapped into something pure and powerful at the genre’s core. The success of his first two independent albums attracted the attention of major labels. Fulks signed with Geffen, and in 1998 released Let’s Kill Saturday Night, an album that made the mistake of trying to reinvent a supremely talented country smartass as a super-slick middle-of-the-road roots-rocker. In sharp contrast to the forceful minimalism of Albini’s work on Country Love Songs and South Mouth, the production here is big and glossy. Saturday Night sands away Fulks’ rough edges and winning idiosyncrasies, and strays far from the retro country sound of his first two solo albums. 

The title track owes less to Buck Owens than to ’80s arena rock. It’s a big, waving-lighters-in-the-air tribute to letting loose on the weekend, but it aspires to anthem status and falls short. Lucinda Williams’ yowling, stray-cat vocals cut through the thick pop sheen on the duet “Pretty Little Poison,” but Fulks struggles to assert his outsized personality amid the pounding drums, power chords, and rock flourishes. Throughout Let’s Kill Saturday Night, Fulks sounds like a man trying to be something he isn’t to appeal to a mainstream audience that would never accept him anyway. Not surprisingly, Let’s Kill Saturday Night was a big flop, in part because Geffen folded, and in part because it’s such a strangely compromised album.

Fulks followed it up with another right turn, Couples In Trouble, a dark, moody album about relationships that was as stripped-down, personal, and non-commercial as anything he’d ever recorded. Next came 2001’s 13 Hillbilly Giants, a collection of semi-obscure country covers. Then Fulks came roaring back with 2005’s Georgia Hard, which picks up exactly where Country Love Songs and South Mouth left off.

“Where There’s A Road” celebrates the liberating, life-affirming powers of the highway. “It’s Always Raining Somewhere” is an acidic kiss-off to a dour ex-girlfriend who functions as a sentient black cloud bringing misery and existential ennui to everyone around her. “Countrier Than Thou” and “I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like It)” find Fulks in country jester mode. On “Countrier Than Thou,” Fulks eviscerates the down-home pretensions of city slickers who imagine that listening to Merle Haggard makes them authorities on all things country, while on “I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like It),” Fulks inhabits the persona of an oily would-be lothario too drunk to realize that the woman he’s unsuccessfully hitting on is his own wife. 

As always, there’s more to Fulks than tomfoolery and glibly satirical lyrics. “You Don’t Want What I Have” and “If They Could Only See Me Now” imbue the titular clichés with ominous meaning and sinister portent. Yes, ominous meaning and sinister portent. Both. Not just one. “You Don’t Want What I Have” offers a lesson in perspective, as a family man whose marriage is crumbling envies his feckless pal, a barfly whose life looks fun and carefree only from the outside. “If They Could Only See Me Now” is even darker, a harrowing story-song about a young man who marries a wealthy scion of a prominent family, only to watch his life spiral out of control as drugs, booze, and madness take their toll. 

True to form, Fulks’ latest release is Happy, an album of Michael Jackson and Jackson 5 covers that’s alternately revelatory and pointless, ingenious and muddled. Fulks and Nora O’Connor turn “The Girl Is Mine” into a goofball battle of the sexes: O’Connor comes off as considerably tougher than Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney. (Then again, the same is true of most kittens.) In Fulks’ hands, “The Way You Make Me Feel” becomes a creepy stalker’s lament. The album is at its best when Fulks turns his attention to overlooked soul-pop gems from The Jackson 5 category, like “Farewell My Summer Love” and a countrified, back-porch take on “Going Back To Indiana.” Covers of Jackson’s biggest hits can’t help but feel redundant, though outside of Jackson’s man-child persona, the lyrics to painfully sincere message songs like “Black Or White” and “Man In The Mirror” register as poignantly naïve. 

Fulks’ music hit close to home, literally. I responded to its humor, its irreverence, and its underlying intelligence and sensitivity. Chicago has long been Fulks’ home base. That’s many, many miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, but if this series has taught me anything, it’s that country is a high lonesome state of mind, not a geographic location.

Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
Chely Wright
Waylon Jennings
Loretta Lynn
Townes Van Zandt
Buck Owens
Shania Twain
Johnny Paycheck