Robbie Fulks

TrackAlbum
Every Kind Of Music But CountryCountry Love Songs
Barely HumanCountry Love Songs
The Buck Starts HereRevenge!
I Told Her LiesSouth Mouth
You Wouldn't Do That To MeSouth Mouth
Parallel BarsThe Very Best Of Robbie Fulks
I Just Want To Meet The ManThe Very Best Of Robbie Fulks
Countrier Than ThouGeorgia Hard
If They Could Only See Me NowGeorgia Hard
That's Where I'm FromGone Away Backward

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Contributor: Keith Shackleton

I’ve followed Robbie Fulks’ career from the get-go, but it’s only recently I’ve become comfortable with where his heart lies. The breadth of his music, plus the twists and turns he takes in the genre we shall call, for convenience sake at this point, country, make him harder to pin down than you might expect. His music ranges from full-on indie rock, through alternative country, to the real thing, completely authentic in tone, voice and instrumentation. Add to that an acerbic wit, bridge-burning musical U-turns between and during albums, an eye for the ridiculous and a stinging line in put-downs – it’s difficult to settle into Robbie Fulks’ music because he’s always prodding and poking at the way you look at life, love and relationships, and saying “Here, this is what I see with my jaundiced eye – you might like it, or you might not.” There’s always some sand in the Vaseline.

A Fulks T-shirt I have says a lot. It’s an unattractive orange colour, with an odd line drawing of his face by artist Heather McAdams, plus the slogan ‘Country is not pretty’. He’s a bit Marmite, is Robbie. But if you like Marmite …

I can’t remember how I heard about his 1996 debut album Country Love Songs: it may have been in the now defunct alternative country magazine No Depression. I was hooked from track one, which is is the first song on my list, a whiplash-smart piece of Western Swing, bemoaning the fact that Robbie’s new love interest is totally compatible with him in all respects save one. Despite the fact that listening to music is her favourite pastime, he’s “barking up the wrong tree … she liked Every Kind Of Music But Country”. So far, so funny, but as soon as Fulks senses a wry smile on your face – his lyrics always have craft and wit, whatever the mood of the song – he does his utmost to wipe it right off again.

Barely Human catalogues the day to day existence of a soon-to-be-abandoned alcoholic on a hellish ride to nowhere: this is no stereotypical country drinking tune, it’s a living nightmare. Few lyricists would go this far.

There’s a neat homage to the Bakersfield Sound of the 1950s in both the lyrics of The Buck Starts Here and the tune. Our protagonist’s wife walks out of his life: desolate, he reaches for the 45 that laid for years behind his bedside chest of drawers … but wait, folks … it’s not a gun, it’s a worn out jukebox single, and as he plays his old faithful Buck Owens record (with Hank Williams sure to follow), the song title is made clear, and it’s crying time once more. These are pin-sharp tunes with an uncommon clarity of vision.

The centrepiece of 1997’s sophomore album South Mouth is the notorious Fuck This Town, a jawdropper that Fulks uses to viciously bite the hand that isn’t feeding him, Nashville’s Music Row, awash with a relentless flood of talentless ‘hat acts’ who peddle “soft-rock feminist crap” to morons. One way to bury your career, I suppose, but he’s never been afraid of upsetting the apple cart, as we shall see. Two standouts from this record: the snarky I Told Her Lies – because it’s the only way our man can get what he wants from a relationship – is such a despicable message but even as you splutter in PC protest, you marvel at the songcraft. Later on the album, it could be the same guy who pops up again in the terrific ballad You Wouldn’t Do That To Me. The penny hasn’t quite dropped; he’s wondering who hangs up the phone when he calls his wife. Who’s the strange guy he sometimes sees with her? And finally, fatally, is this really a goodbye note?

Well, you did lie to her, you bastard, what did you expect?

What Robbie did next: having gained a good degree of critical acclaim, his major label debut for Geffen, Let’s Kill Saturday Night, damn near killed the career he was beefing about not having in Fuck This Town because it was a) a roots-based rock record and b) not very good. I’ll pass.

Back to the independents he went, and produced the immodestly titled The Very Best Of Robbie Fulks which is not a greatest hits compilation, though it does have two of the finest songs in the Fulks oeuvre; Parallel Bars, a duet featuring the wonderful honeyed tones of Kelly Willis, is the story of a couple who just can’t stop fightin’ and end up using parallel bars. Not at the gym. He’s got one bar at his feet, and her favourite watering hole is on the opposite side of the street. A song it’s impossible not to love, even if you do like every kind of music but country. Insults are traded back and forth and the closing call and response over the fade is a delight:

“Yeah, I see you over there …”
“Well, I don’t know what you’re up to, you big drunken oaf.”
“Aw, Kelly, what say we patch up our differences … meet half way?”
“You’re about one fifth too far gone for that.”
“I’m so drunk, I can’t even remember why we’re scrappin’!”
“That’s cos you’re an asshole!”
“But other than that?”

In I Just Want To Meet The Man, the guy from You Wouldn’t Do That To Me pops up again – she’s done it to him, alright – and now he’s a stalker. There’s a quiet malevolence underpinning the lyrics here: this is almost David Lynch country, and the tension is palpable, and quite remarkable, for such a gentle song. I will say no more. Listen and be … disturbed. There’s more of the same in I Was Just Leaving, from South Mouth.

2001’s Couples In Trouble was Robbie’s second stab at roots-rock success and it’s a much better attempt at what he was trying to achieve than Let’s Kill Saturday Night – it’s a varied, intelligent, well written collection of songs – but for me, it doesn’t have much of a soul. I can respect the move he made here, but I can’t admire the tunes.

Georgia Hard was a step back towards comforting country music, but even here Fulks can’t resist a final lash out, albeit quite brilliantly, at faux-country bumpkins. Countrier Than Thou is a smile-fest, but scathing towards people who are not from the South. They’re not country and never will be, but act like they are. They’ve spent their consultancy fees on stetson hats and fancy boots but they’ve never turned a sod or used a spittoon. But the irony is, these might just be the kind of people who buy Robbie Fulks records, and furthermore they might just be people like Fulks himself, who was born in Pennsylvania! Never mind, it’s all good gleeful fun and all in jest (I think). It’s not as if Fulks hasn’t had previous; he insulted what he called Roots Rock Weirdos in a song on The Very Best.

I’m going to finish with a couple of absolute gems. Both are evidence that Robbie Fulks, with the benefit of age and experience, now knows who he is and what he’s best at. By the way, I’m not spending any time with Happy, his album of Michael Jackson covers (!) or the sprawling internet-only genre-busting box-ticking enterprise that is 50-vc Doberman – I get the impression he’ll still throw those curveballs now and again.

But the gently rolling If They Could Only See Me Now is a true diamond, and a perversion of what you might expect from a title like that; there’s no triumphalism here. Our man’s parents continually disapproved of the choices he made, and most emphatically warned him not to marry above his station. But she was rich, and offered him a life hitherto undreamed of. In a blizzard of cocaine and a mountain of spent cash, it goes terribly wrong … and now the man stands in chains as a wife murderer, forbidden to see his children. Delivered completely honestly, no one does this kind of song better than Robbie Fulks.

His crowning achievement, from his most recent traditional country recording Gone Away Backward (which I’m still dipping into, slightly in awe) should be a massive country hit. It won’t be, of course, but That’s Where I’m From, whose subject matter is “the tragically irrevocable past; in this song, the narrator’s success in life has necessarily alienated him from his upbringing and driven a wedge between his kids’ values and his own” deserves a huge audience. The description is Robbie’s. These are the ties that bind him, and if you listen to only one song from my list, make it this one.

Gone Away Backward is his twelfth album. It’s taken me a while, but I think I now know what makes Robbie Fulks tick.

Robbie Fulks official website

Robbie Fulks biography (iTunes)

This is Keith Shackleton’s eleventh post for Toppermost. You can find his blog here.

TopperPost #338

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