By Tyson Lynn
Fulks is also the world’s premiere canine-ventriloquist
If Robbie Fulks had been lucky, he would have been born forty years earlier. That way he could have enjoyed the hey-day of honky-tonk artists like Johnny Paycheck, Hank Williams, and George Jones. Unfortunately, a child of the ’70s, he was forced to cut his teeth on Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap, and the rest of the mass-produced Nashville pap. It was hardly a fair bargain, but he’s since come to terms with his lackluster luck, releasing a late 2005 album that combines his childhood memories with the best of his record collection.
Born in Pennsylvania but raised in Virginia and North Carolina, Fulks’ future was probably always one of a fringe country star. Given a banjo at seven and adept at the fiddle by eleven, by the time Fulks dropped out of Columbia on a scholarship he had decided that guitar was the way to go. Following the girl who was carrying his child, he headed to Chicago, where he found work as a paralegal, proofreader, actor, and, fortunately, a teacher of folk music at the Old Town School of Folk Music (a place worth a second mention; check it out online at http://www.oldtownschool.org/).
By 1987, at the tender age of 24, the girl he had followed had become his ex-wife, and Fulks had a spot in Special Consensus, Chicago’s premier bluegrass band. Although he appeared on the group’s Grammy-nominated 1989 album A Hole in My Heart, Fulks decided that on his own was the only way to go. So after three years as a sideman, he put himself out in front, put some friends behind him, and put a couple half-clad girls on the stage, and Robbie Fulks and the Trailer Trash became the leading act at the cityâ€™s Deja Vu bar.
But it wasn’t until another band started playing his songs that he finally received some notice. After Bloodshot Records placed another band’s version of “Cigarette State” on a 1994 compilation (Insurgent Country, Vol. 1: For a Life of Sin), Fulks was brought into the fold to contribute an original for the follow-up, this one entitled She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died). Bloodshot liked what it heard, and in ’96, released Country Love Songs, Fulks’ debut. Produced by Steve Albini and featuring backing instrumentation from the Skeletons, it was highly praised, but its following was more cult than commercial.
Fulks’ second release did little to change that. Titled South Mouth, it included the fan favorite “Fuck this Town,” an ode to Nashville and its Fulks-perceived ills. Although he had been under contract with a Nashville song publisher since ’93, Fulks found little to revere, and much to revile, in the country music capitol. South Mouth fulfilled Fulks’ contract with Bloodshot, and for his third release,Let’s Kill Saturday Night, he turned to a major label, Geffen Records. Unfortunately, the rock industry was little different than the country, and Fulks soon found himself label-less in the wake of corporate mergers.
Rather than sign on with someone else, he created his own label, Boondoggle Records, on which he’s released his last two albums (The Very Best of and Couples in Love) and his executive-produced tribute to Johnny Paycheck, entitled Touch My Heart. Somewhere in there, he even managed to record an entire album of Michael Jackson covers, which, after MJ’s recent legal troubles, will probably stay under wraps for some time.
Then came Georgia Hard, Fulks’ seventh release, on his third label, the prestigious Yep Roc Records. Eschewing the usual suspects, it instead borrows from Nashville circa 1970, suggesting, perhaps, that the town should not be fucked after all. An even collection of rockers and weepers, it’s pure country all the way.
Robbie Fulks may not be the luckiest guy around, but you could be. Go see him live. Laugh, cry, sing along, and know that you’re getting a better bargain than Robbie could ever hope for.