A version of this appeared in The Toronto Star on Monday, February 15
Robbie Fulks: South Mouth’s Gonna Do It Again
By Nick Krewen
At first glance, the pairing of Robbie Fulks and Ben Folds Five for Wednesday’s sold-out show at The Phoenix might seem odd.
But it’s a mismatch made in heaven.
On one hand you’ve got Folds, the piano-pounding wonder geek whose incisive, sonorous pop songs are quickly catching fire with North American audiences due to the flaming success of the poignantly mellow ballad “Brick.”
At the adverse end of the scale there’s Fulks, the critically acclaimed patron saint of insurgent country personally requested by Folds to open his current tour.
A traditional revivalist steeped in the honky tonk traditions of ’40s country pioneer Hank Williams, narrative humorist Tex Williams (no relation), ’50s pre-Everly fraternal icons The Louvin Brothers and a dash of The Baron Of Bakersfield himself, Buck Owens, Fulks’ reverence for the wailing pedal-steel spirit of old time music can be found on his two exceptional albums Country Love Songs and South Mouth, issued by Bloodshot Records, Chicago’s alternative country music label.
Complemented by lyrical smarts cocked to skewer any moving target, Fulks’ music seems light years removed from Folds’ North Carolinan pop vision.
However Fulks, who celebrates his Toronto debut with a midnight encore at The Horseshoe later the same night (Wednesday), feels the musical chasm isn’t so spacious.
“He has such a great sense of humour, and he’s pulling all sorts of styles and genres out of the air and adapting them to his will,” the Chicago-based Fulks said Thursday from a Dallas motel room.
“I think it works pretty well with what we do.
“In the more superficial and obvious way, it doesn’t, and the audiences have been both good and bad so far.”
Humour is one component that distinguishes Fulks’ style from others. Although such weepy-eyed originals as “Tears Only Run One Way” and “I Was Just Leaving” favour the sober side of the yearnin,’ hurtin,’ cheatin’ and drinkin’ grist that has turned the country music mill for decades, others like his gloating Western Swing narrative two-step “I Told Her Lies” and his spirited middle-finger salute to Nashville’s Music Row entitled “F–k This Town” recall a comical swagger worthy of “A Boy named Sue” writer Shel Silverstein.
Fulks laments the absence of comic relief in today’s tunes.
“It seems that there’s a whole literary side of country that blossomed for awhile 25 years ago, and it’s either watered down or just disappeared,” he sighs.” With writers like Shel Silverstein, Bob McDill and Kris Kristofferson, you were always wondering, are these English majors or country songwriters turning out these songs? I miss that, along with that humorous streak. But I like them, and I like the day labourers of country songwriting from the generation before: Harlan Howard and Roger Miller, and the more primitive guys: Hank Williams, Cindy Walker and Hank Thompson.”
Born in York, Pennsylvania, the 34-year-old’s bloodline includes a grandfather who played saxaphone in a big band; an aunt who performed with bluegrass pioneer Hazel Dickens; a folksinger-turned-schoolteacher father and a teacher mother.
Fulks started on the banjo at the age of 7, moving to fiddle and mandolin, harp and guitar after the family relocated to Virginia. He spent his adolescent and teenage years in Creedmore, North Carolina, attending Columbia University in New York majoring in English.
“In two years, I probably spent more time out of school bopping around New York and trying to play the (Greenwich) Village.”
Alas, in 1983 love struck and Fulks followed his heart and his hormones to Chicago where he resides today. He spent a dozen years teaching folk and bluegrass while in the Special Consensus Bluegrass Band as guitarist. Six years later, he got serious about country.
“I think what appealed to me was the maturity, the simplicity and the direct, emotionally graphic lyrics, as well as the wild energy of the Western swing and the honky-tonk stuff of the ’40s and ’50s, and the raw primal quality to it that’s been over discussed by music critics, ” says Fulks. “The country stuff is so understated, played so elegantly, and you have to say everything within eight bars.”
He took a stab at Nashville, signing a publishing contract and — as he notes so eloquently in “F–k This Town” — “shook a lot of hands, ate a lot of lunch, wrote a bunch of dumb-ass songs” to no avail.
Years later, he suggests that the song may have had a different outcome had he been a success.
“It’s a total sour grapes song,” Fulks laughs. “If they’d pushed the stuff aggressively and gotten me cuts I would have been happy just taking the money and all that went with it.”
Returning to Chicago, he demoed some songs with Steve Albini while placing tunes with local alternative country group The Sundowners. Bloodshot included his “Cigarette State” on their 1994 compilation For A Life Of Sin: A Compilation Of Insurgent Chicago Country, adding “She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)” to Hell-Bent: Insurgent Country Vol. 2 . In 1996, they agreed to release his debut album,Country Love Songs.
Today Fulks’ Bloodshot days are behind him. Last summer he signed a three-album deal with Geffen, and heads into the studio in March.
“I’ve always wanted to do this for a living, and it didn’t look to be a real strong possibility on the indie level,” he admits. ” I lost whatever illusions I had about being an indie artist because I had to book all my own jobs.
“So while getting in those major leagues definitely comes with strings attached, I thought it was a fair bargain to try and have my records in stores, get tour support and have some kind of publicity machine behind me.”
Robbie Fulks is also expanding his horizons beyond country, and he promises Toronto audiences a preview of a half-dozen stylistically new songs. Is he concerned about alienating his followers?
“I am worried,” he concedes. “But I think there’s going to be enough continuity on this new record. It’s probably about a third rock pop, a third hard country, and a third in between those two poles.
“I don’t think any of my songs will ever be totally free of the country taint, because no matter what kind of music I go after, I always end up sounding slightly twangy.”