The tall, slender man on the other side of the table finishing his vegetarian lunch is dangerous and unfailingly polite. His hair is sandy and worn just long enough to reveal a slight wave. His eyes remain steady, quizzical, even kind.
Maybe even kind.
Within the discomfort of his songs and his online newsletter, Robbie Fulks is formidable: a killer, a convincing drunk, an experienced and adroit cheater, and, worse, a humorist. All this is accomplished with great guitar virtuosity, antic flourishes onstage, and no apparent regard for falling chips.
Nevertheless, it is the wit and bite with which he writes that makes Fulks intimidating, and worth listening to. That and his detailed knowledge of what country music has sounded like over the years, and who played it.
He has been most visible (if at all) scratching that last itch these past few years, first with 13 Hillbilly Giants, his 2001 collection of covers plucked from the deep country canon, then with cuts on recent tributes to Wanda Jackson and Webb Pierce. He also produced Touch My Heart, the Johnny Paycheck tribute, for Sugar Hill Records in 2004.
“They’re really tempting,” he admits of those salutes, “because a guy like me — and I assume, you — that’s so in love with dead things will just jump at any opportunity to appear with a group of like-minded past worshippers.”
But the acid-penned songwriter has been oddly silent for some time. His only album of fresh material in seven years was 2001′s self-released Couples In Trouble. “I only write songs for records anymore,” Fulks says, “since I don’t have a songwriting deal.”
More’s the pity. The May 17 release of Georgia Hard on Yep Roc (the original working title was Reality Country) is an overdue reminder of his gifts. It is also the quintessential Robbie Fulks alt-country album, replete with barbed humor, an unguarded swipe at portions of his audience (those who presumably viewed 1998′s Let’s Kill Saturday Night and the far more ambitious Couples In Trouble as unnecessary aberrations), two murders, and an unyielding toll of broken hearts. He’s updated his sound a bit, moving from the honky-tonks as far as the mid-1970s for inspiration, but the picking and singing is pure country. He even recorded in Nashville, with the likes of Sam Bush on mandolin and Lloyd Green on steel and dobro.
There is also the matter of an unreleased suite of Michael Jackson songs.
Nothing was more giddy in the early days of alt-country than the chorus of Fulks’ “She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)”, which first appeared on Bloodshot’s second landmark Insurgent Country compilation in 1995. It is, of course, the tragic story of a failed artistic career, told with the callous glee of teenage punk, yet played with the polish and finesse of a first-call country band. In many ways that song encapsulated the critique of mainstream country made by the writers and artists who frequent these pages, for it was classic country and nothing like what might hope to be played on country radio.
Now, it’s a fair question why anybody from the rock world cared what happened to country. It’s not as if the classic works of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Dolly Parton or Merle Haggard were about to vanish from print for all time.
And that, at least initially, is what we were interested in, drawn to: The old stuff. The good stuff, the certified raw pre-punk savagery of the hard days when blood and sweat and sex and hangovers could happen on either side of the footlights, and maybe that’s what country really has in common with punk. Except punk rock never wept much. (Maybe it should’ve, before the funerals.)
The weird thing is that Robbie Fulks — onetime New York folksinger, former guitarist in the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band Special Consensus, perennially uncut Nashville songwriter — ever got tied up in all of this. Maybe that was the critique, in the end — that Robbie had to be associated with the post-punk insurgent country crowd in Chicago to be heard.
Today he won’t even object to the label alt-country. “I think there needs to be a phrase that says, ‘This is country, but it’s not the same old crap,’” he suggests, almost gently, “since country’s pretty well come down to crap in recent times. Alternative has a certain kind of aroma, I guess, of maybe punk or maybe seeded rolls at the lesbian bakery or something.
“I consider what I do pretty straight country a lot of the time. So it’s not necessarily punk, definitely not punk. Sometimes it’s seeded rolls at the lesbian bakery. It’s usually not punk, so the connotations of alternative aren’t necessarily accurate, but…”
It doesn’t make sense when you go back and play it all over again, but, then, the 1990s were filled with paradox. Hell, the decade began with Nirvana and ended up with Britney Spears. What doesn’t make sense, today, is this: Country music, that most conservative of musical formats, expanded its musical palette in all kinds of rockish directions, sold a whole bunch of records, and grew a fresh new (yes, suburban) audience.