When I think of Robbie Fulks my mind inadvertently shifts to Dan Bern. My guess is you have never heard of either one. That’s a shame but something I’m attempting to rectify with this piece.
Both are white male songwriters who write some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard.
There are some musicians who are not nearly as well known in their genres, or at all, as they should be. Two that immediately come to mind are Dan Bern and Robbie Fulks.
Bern is a folk singer while Fulks is categorized more as alt-country which basically means that while both sing and shout brilliant things it’s easier to rock out to Fulks.
Both have made moves which probably did not help their career. Bern changed his name temporarily to Bernstein while Fulks wrote a song, “Fuck This Town,” about Nashville.
I can go on and on about Fulks odd career moves, from having his greatest hits album (The Very Best Of Robbie Fulks, 1999) early in his career to recording a collection of covers of little known country songs to one album in which every song was about relationship problems (Couples In Trouble, 2001) but you get the idea.
But it is not as though Fulks is unaware of the problem. One of the new disks starts with a simulated phone call to Fulks from the head of his record label. The person refers to Fulks prior album, Georgia Hand, as “path-breaking, not chart-breaking.” Your last record was what we in the business laughingly refer to as an artistic triumph. We can only afford two of those a decade.” While both have received much critical praise neither has enjoyed much commercial success. I hope that will change.
Spin summed up Fulks well: “Robbie Fulks likes to tick people off… America’s most unjustly unsung singer/songwriter. You can read more about Bern at his Web page. My two favorite songs by him are “Tiger Woods” and “Jeruselem.” Warning: If you are put off by adult topics then don’t read the lyrics. Otherwise read them and you will see what I am getting at. Oh and you can watch Bern singing Tiger Woods here.
Both Fulks and Bern put on great live shows and I was stunned when I saw both of them, which is another reason I lumped them together here.
I saw Fulks as part of an alt-country event called Twangfest in St. Louis. While I knew he was good I had no idea how charismatic he was until I saw him perform. He blew me away singing songs like these two.
You can detect and feel this charisma on this new double album he has put out. It is a live album but as with all things Fulks it’s never quite as simple as it may first appear. Some songs are live, some are not. Half are new, half are not. He explains in the interview below why he chose the title and selections.
One other thought before we go to the interview: My favorite song on the album is his cover of “Believe” by Cher. He actually hiccups at each place where she, on her version, changes pitch. You can listen to it online. He also does another great version of one of my favorites of his "Let's Kill Saturday Night."
Here now is my email interview with Mr. Fulks. I want to thank Ana Moreno Amon, a writer who served as my research assistant for this piece. She helped developing most of these questions. I offered her half of my salary but since I don’t get paid for this she didn’t seem too excited by this offer.
Regarding the title of your newest collection, Revenge! who or what are you exacting revenge against?
It refers to the maxim that the motivation to perform is 10% inspiration and 90% revenge (I don’t necessarily make any claim to either one – being inspired or vengeful).
You seem to have a talent for taking songs from another genre and mixing things up a bit (what you refer to as your "blue plate special approach to music"). What compels you to cover songs by other artists (Cher and ABBA come to mind)?
Well, I think some songs are probably underrated because whoever sings them is popularly considered too this or too that. In the case of the singers you mention, too white-bread megamall or something like that. “Believe” is a great pop song by almost any criterion. “Dancing Queen,” “S.O.S.,” “Fernando,” etc. have retarded words but melodically are nearly McCartney-esque. Covering a well-known and well-regarded old country song would be, for me, like protesting Nazism
For the songs (on Revenge!) that you released previously, did you see this as your second chance to get it right?
I made a set list of songs that I thought were improvable since the year I recorded them – not that I got so much better, but the performance intensity or the clarity of the arrangements of a particular song might have organically developed after playing it repeatedly down through the years.
In your Revenge! commentary, you said: "my thinking in the early 1990s was: Fifties country is the best style of music created so far, and other music is only any good to the extent it mimics it." So what style are you most enamored with now?
I don’t automatically think of the things I like as favored by the lord Jehovah. I think there are a few splendid items and a lot of dull ones within most of the usual style categories. I think jazz and electronica are noise and AC/DC are just great… and I think all of these latter-day conclusions mark a definite advancement in my musical IQ over the last 15 years!
When you first met one of your heroes, Al Anderson, he said that you aren't exactly the "tough guy" he was expecting. With your legendary sense of humor and clean-cut looks, how did you get this reputation?
(With the song) “Fuck this town.”
Do you ever experience a backlash from some of your more controversial songs: “God Isn't Real,” “Hate Women,” for instance?
Sure. People walk out of my shows angrily on occasion, or stay late to holler at me, or email arguments, insults, death threats. I’m sure Air Supply got the same reaction out of someone or other. I’m not going to be writing songs and making records forever, so I may as well use the language I’d like to.
Do you resent or embrace being classified as 'alt country'?
I understand the justification for creating the category, but I don’t think anyone it’s meant to describe embraces it. As for me, most of what I do is country, no prefix necessary – It’s a very large category.
Does this imply your more subversive side, lack of mainstream commerciality or do you think it speaks to the way you don't color in the country lines, so to speak?
I don’t think anything I’ve put out has had the intention or effect of subverting anything, or has courted or skirted “commerciality,” which means what again? My songs are on universal subjects, in easy-to-understand-in-one-listen lyrics, which are usually couched in long-established musical forms. On the other hand, “Kid A” sold tons!
Your rendition of "cry, cry" on the 2002 tribute album to Johnny Cash was well received. Was being a part of this project, or any other event, a turning point in your career?
No, but I was pleased to be asked.
In your 1998 interview w/ Terry Gross for NPR's Fresh Air, you made the comment that "words are less important than everything else." Now, that's an odd statement coming from a singer/songwriter. Do you consider yourself a musician first and words just come w/ the territory?
I stand by that one! I would define the value of lyrics negatively – they can screw up a song, but they can’t seriously elevate it if, say, the groove is bad or the singing is tepid or the overall approach seems to be dull-witted. I listen to a piece of music in the same way I think most people do – for the sound of it before anything else – and so I can usually get an accurate feeling within the first few bars, or seconds (or, “before the first word is sung”) whether it strikes my ear as interesting and musical.
If you could do a show with anyone, dead or alive, who would you pick and why?
Hmm – that’s not too fair. Howabout Jackie Wilson? He seems to have been a real showman. Patti Smith? I don’t know…
You have been compared to a lot of other personalities and country performers: Johnny Paycheck, Shel Silverstein, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, etc. Do you consider anyone to be your musical alter ego?
Roger Miller is kind of a gold standard to me as far as the breadth of his raw talent. As far as interesting chord changes in a pop song, a lot of British guys – the Beatles, Graham Parker – singing – Jean Shepard, Hank Thompson, Dave Edmunds, Suzannah Hoffs, Ronnie Spector, Willie Nelson, on and on. Songwriting – all the guys I covered on my Hillbilly Giants cover record.
You must have an eclectic playlist humming in your ear. Is there a relatively unknown artist that you would like to plug?
Name one song, on this or any other of your albums, that encapsulates the true spirit of Robbie Fulks.
“Georgia Hard” is as close as I’ve come to writing autobiographically, and feels real natural to sing, so maybe that one.
What was the funniest reaction you received to your song, 'F— this town," about Nashville? Did you ever have any regrets over the song?
This morning I did a TV show where the anchorman met me before going on camera with a quick rundown on the facts on his notecard: “So, you’re from Raleigh, and you disdain commercial country music… ” The thing is – and the reason that song theoretically speaks for someone other than just me – Everybody disdains radio country to some degree. Everybody that’s into country and most of those who are!
Almost all the acts I’ve had on my radio series dislike the typical modern mainstream country act. The legends of the Grand Ole Opry do. The Dixie Chicks do. I’ll bet Shania Twain does, and I’m almost sure Luke Lewis and Tony Brown aren’t that thrilled with what “Nashville” musically symbolizes anymore. So it’s no earth shaking or unique calling card for me to use. I don’t regret having recorded that song. But I regret its having defined my persona,” and if I could have calculated that there was no way to record it without its permanently defining me, then I guess I would have passed.
As far as funny reactions to “Fuck this town,” anyone that disliked it didn’t get in my face about it, except twice, when a No Depression writer lady took me to task for using the word “faggot,” and shortly later, when a gay friend parted ways with me over the same thing.
Why did you choose this concept for the double album that is part live and part studio?
Well. Only the first track, “We’re on the road.” Is studio originated. I thought it would bend expectations in an interesting/fruitful way to begin a live record with a small-sounding unambient, small-studio performance.
Do you think you sound better live or in a studio with a producer?
Just different kinds of bad – you mean singing, specifically? In the studio the trick is to be natural and have fun (which is next to impossible) and on stage the hard part is hitting the right notes and hearing what’s going on.
Thanks again to Robbie Fulks for the interview. It is a real thrill