Robbie Fulks: 2005 interview

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on May 12, 2005.

A country boy from the South ends up living in Chicago, longing for that “Carolina moon” of his youth.

That’s the plot line of “Georgia Hard,” the title track of the new album by Robbie Fulks, who grew up in North Carolina. He admits it’s one of the most autobiographical songs he’s ever recorded.

Like most works of fiction it doesn’t totally stick with the facts. Unlike the character in “Georgia Hard,” Fulks sounds content with his life as a north suburban dad — and he’s probably not going to head back south anytime soon for a job picking pecan trees.

Fulks is heading a little ways south, though. He’s moving with his family next month from Lindenhurst to Wilmette.

Although Fulks is usually lumped into the “alt-country” musical category, he prefers to call his new CD “a straight, plain old country record.”

“Georgia Hard,” his seventh album, comes out next Tuesday on Yep Roc Records, and it’s filled with the sort of songs that would have been Nashville hits in the mid-’60s. But Fulks just laughs at the idea of his music being played today on mainstream country radio.

“Oh no, that will never happen,” he says. “They don’t play any good stuff. … It’s got to be on a big label, and I’m not on that, so it’s not going to happen.”

Fulks would like to see his music reach a wider audience, of course.

“I tried to stress that when I turned in the record to Yep Roc,” he says. “It’s great to have this little cult following that I have. But … we had to find some way of letting the truckers and the people in Missouri — just the regular, common, average-Joe country fans — know about this music. People who might think I’m some sort of fire-breathing oddity have to be welcomed into the camp as well.”

No, he doesn’t breathe fire. But Fulks says many people have the wrong notion about what kind of musician he is.

“I think people had misfiled me for several years as a sort of country Mojo Nixon,” Fulks says, referring to the singer who had the comical hit “Elvis Is Everywhere.”

“I’ve always been trying to wiggle free of that characterization,” Fulks says. “I’ve always enjoyed doing funny songs. For whatever reason, the two or three funny songs I tend to put on records just come to the fore and obscure the other stuff that I do.”

His concern about being viewed as a joker didn’t stop him from including a couple of highly humorous tracks on “Georgia Hard,” which play out like well-timed comedy sketches, even using Spike Jones-style sound effects.

Fulks duets with his wife, Donna, on “I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me).” In the song, Fulks is supposedly so drunk that he’s forgotten he’s married to Donna — and he tries to pick her up at a bar.

‘‘That was fun to do, man,” Fulks says. “I think we did, five or six takes. The sixth one, the one that ended up on the record, was the one where the engineer stopped it. There was total laughter in the control room. When we got a reaction out of the people around us, we figured that was the one.”

“Countrier Than Thou” pokes fun at people who pose as hicks, including a jab at President Bush:

“He’s got a ranch with a Stetson
He’s a hip-shooting ex-oil king
Even talks like Buddy Ebsen
But he’s sitting in the West Wing.
Frankenstein I’m well aware of,
But won’t somebody please explain
How you get a county sheriff
Walking with a frat boy brain?”

“That’s the ‘third verse problem,’ which has been identified by Gillian Welch and others,” Fulks says. “When you get to the third verse and you want to ratchet up the dramatic content, there’s nowhere to go but Jesus or death or — in this case — the president.”

Although country music has had its share of more conservative political lyrics in recent years, Fulks’ fans appreciate his liberal bent on songs like “Countrier Than Thou.”

“People seem to like it, and they don’t throw crap at me or run out of the room, like they do on some other songs I play,” he says.

Surprisingly, when Fulks submitted that song to music publishers, they thought it would be a good tune for Nashville stars to cover.

“For instance, it got pitched to Brooks and Dunn,” Fulks says. “I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? This is never going to be cut by anybody. It would have to be totally rewritten.’ But people don’t pick up on that right away about the song. It has a country-hit sort of sound to it.”

Working with his longtime band on road-tested tunes, Fulks recorded “Georgia Hard” on his own last year, then shopped the recordings around. Three labels were interested: Chicago’s Bloodshot (with whom he has worked in the past), Sugar Hill and Yep Roc, based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“Yep Roc seemed like the most flexible and the most up-and-coming and exciting, youthful-attitude kind of place,” Fulks says. “So I went with them. And they had the most money, too.”

While Fulks is pessimistic about his chances of making it big on mainstream radio, he is hopeful about the growth of satellite and Internet radio stations.

“There’s not a whole lot of hope on the radio dial, but there’s probably more going on than when I started making records,” he says.

Fulks himself is part of the satellite-radio revolution. He hosts a show on XM, using recordings that he makes at the ongoing ‘‘Secret Country” concert series at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, where he hosts performances by various country artists.

“Satellite is not yet a mass medium by any means, but it’s getting there,” he says. “The potential is so great in satellite radio that I’m excited to be in on the infancy.”

Photo by Robert Loerzel