Robbie Fulks is no stranger to contradiction. That's obvious after just one listen to this gangly, deceptively clean-cut Chicago guitarist's cheerful little country death song, "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)."
It's not your typical, happy-go-lucky Hollywood starlet suicide tale, you soon realize, as you find yourself shouting along over the soaring melody, "Her star soon fell and her body got old/So she took a lot of pills and died." But then again, Fulks is not your typical, happy-go-lucky singer/songwriter.
Since relocating to Chicago in 1983 after a college stint at Columbia in New York City, the restless guitarist has re-invented himself several times over.
Fulks has been, at various times: a folksinger backing up the legendary Bob Gibson; a bluegrass picker in Evanston-based Special Consensus; the frontman for the twang-in-cheek Trailer Trash Revue at Chicago's Deja Vu rockabilly hangout; and, more recently, a hard-writing, guitar-slinging country tunesmith with a Nashville publishing deal co-writing with Bill Lloyd and Marshall Crenshaw and a 14-track debut CD, Country Love Songs (Bloodshot), on its way to market.
"I get bored pretty easily with most musical styles," he admits. "The funny thing is that I only got into country music when I was playing the bluegrass circuit. And now it's verging on an obsession, as my songs are beginning to show."
From the string-snapping "Took a Lot of Pills" (first heard on Bloodshot's second "insurgent country" compilation, 1995's Hellbent) and shuffling "Rock Bottom, Population One," to the achingly gorgeous, "The Buck Stops Here (With Hank Sure to Follow)," Country Love Songs touches all of the right traditional country bases in showcasing Fulks's knack for memorable melodies and gleefully left-of-center lyrics.
While the hook-happy "I'd Be Lonesome" and "Let's Live Together" might have you thinking you'd stumbled upon some treasure trove of lost Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart masters, "The Scrapple Song" quickly brings the listener back to Fulks' not so fondly remembered Keystone State roots in its cackling descriptions of Pennsylvania's famous mystery meat: "It's hearty as a t-bone, slippery as a tadpole./Any old part of the hog will do/Dick and the nipples and the toenails, too."
The whole thing is served up fat and tight with the help of some great Chicago fiddle and pedal steel players and Missouri roots rockers The Skeletons, who back Fulks up on most of the cuts on the CD.
"Fuck This Town" is one boundary-testing Fulks original that, unfortunately, didn't make the CD cut. Revolving around a rocked-up, shout-along chorus, the song chronicles the love-hate relationship Fulks and a thousand other writers have with the publishing business and its self-ordained mecca, NashVegas.
"Ironically, I've really grown to love Nashville over the course of my trips down there to pitch my songs," says Fulks, when queried about the origins of "Fuck This Town." "All my frustrations aside about not getting one of my songs recorded by a major artist, it's a great music town and a really inspiring place to visit. It reminds me of Hollywood in the '30s -- with all sorts of really creative people from a host of different backgrounds showing up day after day."
Since inking his publishing deal with API in 1993, Fulks has made the 950-mile roundtrip drive to Nashville every three or four weeks in an effort to get his increasingly huge back-catalog of originals and collaborative efforts with Lloyd and Crenshaw heard by someone who knows someone who has a friend who has a buddy who does sound for a guy who might be recording an album soon.
"It's a go-nowhere job, but I'm sticking with it," jokes Fulks, who will have to forego some of his Nashville trips to hit the road behind Country Love Songs later this summer. "You never know when something's going to fall in your lap."
Let's just hope it's not a tub full of hog parts.