South Mouth: Alt-Country Firebrand Robbie Fulks Returns

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It's been interesting to watch the career transformation of Robbie Fulks.

The Chicago picker and writer grabbed some notoriety -- and a decent alt-country cult following -- after his frustrations with trying to "make it" in Nashville in the mid-'90s led to his did-he-really-say-that tune, "Fuck This Town."

The entire No Depression nation screamed a big "Hell, yes" to Fulks' wry observations on his 1997 album South Mouth.

Hey, this ain't country-western

It's just soft-rock feminist crap

And I thought they'd struck bottom back in the days of Ronnie Milsap

As far as things around Nashville go, nothing much has changed. But fast-forward almost two decades and things have definitely changed for the former musical bomb-thrower. Asked what his kids think of dad and his South Mouth album, Fulks just laughs.

"Sometimes when I walk into the room, it's like they all drop into these fake comic voices from Hee-Haw," he says. "Country is so alien and horrible to them. They're more into bands like Phish, you know?"

But whether his kids like it or not, with each of his dozen albums the former Columbia University student has for the most part moved steadily back towards his earliest professional musical roots as a flat-picker in the bluegrass outfit Special Consensus. His latest, 2013's Gone Away Backward, is more country than anything coming out of the Nashvegas machine and vastly removed from the current bro-country bullshit. When it comes to recording traditional country music, Fulks stands near the pinnacle of the art today.

"I grew up in Pennsylvania and North Carolina in a musical family," Fulks explains. "I like a good rock song, I like blues, I like good music. But that old time music is what is in there way down deep with me."

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But it hasn't always been that way for Fulks, who taught at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music before moving to Nashville in 1993 to chase the money and fame. But as he sings in "Fuck This Town," "I just can't take one more writer in the round," so after two fine but largely ignored country albums he eventually signed with Geffen Records, who let him shoot for the pop charts with a hard-rocking, edgy album called Let's Kill Saturday Night.

The album was ambitious in its content and took Fulks in a direction few people expected. Unfortunately, not long after releasing the album, Geffen closed up shop, leaving Fulks at loose ends.

He landed back in Chicago and began recording albums for his own Boondoggle imprint, and renewed a licensing/distribution association with Bloodshot Records, who advertised themselves as "insurgent country," playing off the alternative country fad. Fulks had already released Country Love Songs (1996) and South Mouth (1997) on Bloodshot.

His first Boondoggle was an album of obscure Nashville covers titled 13 Hillbilly Giants. Writing about it in RockzillaWorld at the time, LOM said:

With his latest offering 13 Hillbilly Giants, Robbie Fulks has delivered us something priceless -- a piece of our own history. Like an archeologist probing the barren desert wastes for hidden trap doors to ancient tombs,

Fulks has located the mythical Music City and carefully excavated the musical middens of our past, the past the Music Machine has burying deeper and deeper in the trash heaps under piles of Lee Ann Rimes records, Lonestar videos, and schmaltzy, overproduced, lowest-common-denominator crossover hits disguised as country music. Fulks has discovered where pharaoh's music boxes are buried, taken his whisk broom and painstakingly removed the dirt from his archeological find to reveal lost treasures of Nashville's golden age.

Like any archeologist in search of lost civilizations, in rediscovering these 13 relatively obscure songwriters (except for Porter Wagoner, Bill Anderson and Jean Shepherd, all the others have disappeared from the mainstream country music scene) Fulks has exposed sociological secrets and tribal taboos about Nashville and country music today. For in unearthing these artists, Fulks has uncovered pristine examples of the kinds of songs the Nashville machine no longer favors or even allows: drinking songs, divorce songs and cheating songs.

That's pretty much where Fulks is still at today. 2013's Gone Away Backward is a throwback to the days hardcore honky-tonk and of mountain music sung around one microphone and sometimes played at methedrine speed. Translating that work into a solo setting is a challenge Fulks relishes.

"I spend a lot of the year playing with bands and I love that because the stage thing is the most exciting way to communicate with other players," he says. "But then to face the audience and do the songs alone, if you can pull off a solo show that doesn't just come off like another Bluebird thing, that really gets me going.

"So the last few years, I've just gone out solo and done my thing about ten or 12 times a year," Fulks continues. "There's something to be said for just getting up there with your guitar and having to make it work, and Mucky Duck is one of those perfect places for that. People are respectful and thoughtful, they're there for the music, not to socialize or party. I love doing that, especially if I can do my part right."

Saturday night at Mucky Duck, Fulks just might pull it off again.

Robbie Fulks at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Portsmouth, July 26, 9:30 p.m.

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