Roots Rock Weirdo

Insurgent Chicago country singer-guitarist Robbie Fulks walks the line between serious songwriting and irony.

Robbie Fulks Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights 10 p.m., Sunday, March 26. $8, 216-321-5588
Robbie Fulks writes country music, but not for Nashville.
Robbie Fulks writes country music, but not for Nashville.
Talk to Robbie Fulks and you think his songs are like his speech -- strong, but subject to change.

"My accent kind of tends to go in and out, depending on how drunk I am," Fulks says via phone. "I kind of speak normally, kind of Pennsylvania."

His tunes, too, seem to vary according to the material, maybe even the setting. Superficially pegged as an alternative country writer, the 36-year-old Fulks is far more than that. Think of him as the missing link between George Jones and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and you'll approximate his complexity.

But you may not comprehend Fulks's bizarre humor, what you could call humeur noir. It's what informs much of his best material -- songs such as "I Just Want to Meet the Man" (one of the darkest tunes ever written about divorce -- it's so dark, you've got to smile to keep from crying), "Pretty Little Paradise," and the notorious "Fuck This Town." It's the humor that keeps Fulks persevering through four albums, one major label, and an independent label he's glad he can fall back on. In short, Fulks has a tough row to hoe as he tries to build his popularity.

The vaguely mid-Atlantic Fulks was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, and after attending school at Columbia University, now lives in Chicago. Married twice, the father of sons Nicholas, Preston, and Tennessee, Fulks has been a full-time idiosyncratic artist for nearly 20 years and has been recording with some profile for most of 10 -- in the early '90s, he played in a rock band called the Trailer Trash Revue, which released a single. Songs of his also appeared on regional compilations such as 1994's For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country and its follow-up, 1995's Hell Bent: Insurgent Country Volume 2.

"I probably made a recording, strictly speaking, every year since I was 16 years old," says Fulks, who's currently producing and writing the material for singer Dallas Wayne, who worked with him in a bluegrass band in the '80s. Wayne is "a modern kind of country singer," says Fulks, a fatalist craftsman with a unique point of view. Wayne "wants to go rootsy" on his album, and Fulks is the right man for the job. "I'm sort of being the roots injector for this," he says. Which makes sense, given the eclecticism that suffuses his most recent album, The Very Best of Robbie Fulks. It spans the sweet homage "Jean Arthur," the wonderfully incorrect "White Man's Bourbon" (Fulks's guileless paean to Bangle cutie Susannah Hoffs), and the incredible "I Just Want to Meet the Man."

As Fulks says, The Very Best isn't a greatest hits collection -- Fulks isn't exactly Hot 100 material, though he'd love to be -- but a retrospective, covering terrain he's been mining for well over 10 years, such as the perfervid "Hamilton County Breakdown" (which proves Fulks picks as well as, say, comedian Steve Martin) and the old "Jean Arthur."

Since he released Very Best in January, Fulks has not only written material for the Wayne album, he has put together a good half of another album he's shopping around. Tentatively called Couples in Trouble, it's "a theme record about disintegrating conjugal relationships," says Fulks, who's happily married to a woman named Donna, who also sings. "Acting's more her thing," Fulks adds. "She does mostly voiceovers, keeps the money coming in that way."

Couples in Trouble didn't start with a concept, says Fulks, who counts '80s new wave among his key influences.

"I try to start a song from different places, so I don't get formulaic," he says. "A lot of songs start with a title, because that's the way a lot of country songs are written."

So he's a country songwriter? "I think that's my number-one strength," he says.

So he gets play in Nashville? "No," Fulks says. "I don't get play anywhere. I'm an Americana radio guy, for better or worse, and a little bit of Triple A, and radio's strongest in Chicago, because that's where I live."

Despite the lack of radio play, Fulks keeps working, slowly building an audience for himself and bringing in some money. The money hasn't been rock-star level for Fulks -- at least not since Geffen Records bought him out of a three-album contract (with options, natch) last year, after 1998's Let's Kill Saturday Night failed a) to catch fire and b) to be promoted. It was his first (and, he hopes, not his last) foray into major label territory. While Let's Kill Saturday Night contains some of his best songs, it suffers from overwrought production that exaggerates Fulks's Janus-like musical personality, which is both his deepest dilemma and greatest promise: Does Fulks want to be a serious songwriter or an ironist? He's so good at both, he raises the question again and again -- which makes him very difficult to market and a delight to listen to.

Fulks, of course, doesn't view his work that simply. While his upcoming Couples in Trouble is serious (but not personal, he says), he also values a well-crafted novelty song. "People use novelty songs as an excuse to write bad songs," he says. "There's such a thing as a well-crafted novelty song. It's just not done much anymore. Laughing is a part of my personality I can't disguise. I love to laugh."

Which surely keeps him going, as does his songwriting. Fulks, meanwhile, doesn't consider his release from the Geffen contract a burden, even though it left him without the forum a major label affords an artist. In a sense, it has freed him as a writer. "It was nice not even thinking about that on this record," he says. "I wasn't working for a label when I made it, just working with my own money and under my own counsel.

"I was really relieved because of the way I was going," he says of the Geffen situation. Not only did the label lose interest in him when it was absorbed into Interscope, it never gave him what he wanted: "a bigger bus or more resources to work with or radio support."

Now, Fulks is developing his new material, pitching it to the industry, and as usual, touring. "I don't have any preconceptions of what the next label will be," says Fulks. "I'm just shooting high and low, seeing who's interested." And if no major label comes through, Fulks likely will release the material on Bloodshot, a fine Chicago label he says he relies on. "A hit would be great," he says. "Two hits would be even better. Three hits, I think you got 20 years of good solid roadwork and audiences to play to."

In the meantime, he's still developing an audience. Cleveland, he admits, has been a challenge. "Cleveland's one of the few cities where I haven't been able to break down the walls," he says. "If more people come out the next time you come through town, that's the way it's supposed to work." He has played seven shows in Cleveland in the past two years, both as a headliner and as the opening act.

"I've come back on my own," he says. "The Grog Shop, Wilbert's, a little place called the Barking Pumpkin -- I mean the Barking Spider. Usually, when I open for a bigger name, I'm able to build on it. There have been three or four cities where that routine hasn't really kicked in, but we're going to try it again. On a Sunday night."

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