Robbie Fulks, in Color
by Mark Swartz
My favorite rock and roll song, maybe, is by a country singer.
Down in her arms on a three-day drunk
When the world was lawless and wild
With the last drop gone, and the lust all shrunk
I clung to her chest like a child
“That was me trying to remember what NYC was like in the early 1980s—an end-of-world feeling in which you could luxuriate if you were young and unburdened by much responsibility. I was a late teenager with anxieties and queasily wide horizons, and the love affairs that come to mind for that song are anxious and shadowed by some kind of nameless tragedy. The man in the affair is more infantile than manly.”
But how do you write a song like that? I ask.
“I sit with a composition book open, waiting for things to fall out of the sky.”
“That’s it. Sometimes I do the Hemingway thing and stand at a desk. Or I pace. I hole up in a room and set my own deadlines.”
Fulks has a friend who once played on a Dave Mathews recording. “They jammed in the studio for two months. They started with an idea, but no lyrics. I’d love to have that luxury.”
He makes a lot of surprising choices for a country singer. Living in Chicago, for one. Reading New York Times Book Review critics’ choices.* Recording with noise godfather Steve Albini is another.
“It’s a partnership that has nothing to do with the writing. I admire his efficiency, his work ethic, his lack of emotionalism. That’s helpful when the clock is ticking.”
“One of his recordings that I listen to a lot,” he adds, “is his 1997 re-recording with Cheap Trick of their 1977 In Color album.
“It’s raw, in a small room, unmanipulated, and it’s fucking cool.” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSHhiEavEfI )
“I’ve done the big studio thing,” he says. “We smoke a joint while the producer reflects on famous people he’s met. Forty minutes later, all I can think is, that’s $250.”
Nor does he collaborate much with other songwriters, though recently he was enlisted to work with Logan Ledger on a Willie Nelson-inspired set. We compare favorite country songs that worry every last meaning out of a phrase. I mention “You Wouldn’t Do That to Me,” wrongly thinking Fulks wrote it. Actually, it was Jim DeWan, he says, who now works as a cook.
He recalls Ferlin Husky and the Hushpuppies’ “You Pushed Me Too Far” (1968, written by Bobby Braddock), which ends with an echo effect signaling Ferlin’s fall from a cliff. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hecYTKyfXw8 )
And brings up his own “If They Could Only See Me Now,” from the 2005 album Georgia Hard.
“The phrase has different meanings as the song goes along. At the end, he’s in prison for murdering his wife, and it’s about if his kids could only visit him.”
Not all of Robbie Fulks’s songs are depressing or profound. There’s lighter stuff like “She Took a Lot of Pills and Died,” “Roots Rock Weirdos,” and “Fountains of Wayne Hotline.” “I have a giant surplus of funny ideas bouncing around in my head,” he explains. “Sometimes they’re too irresistible; sometimes I stop halfway.”
Songs that make you laugh but that can be played over and over again. That makes me think of Loudon Wainwright III, but Fulks says he didn’t discover the songwriter of “Motel Blues” until he was 22. “I missed out when the cement was truly wet,” Fulks says. “But he is audacious in his writing. Nothing is off limits.”
That leads us to Richard Thompson, who produced Wainwright’s best albums and who, though known to be quite a comedian onstage, normally suppresses that instinct in his songs. “You can sense the wellspring of ideas in his mind,” Fulks notes. “Energetic and endless. That aligns to a humorous instinct.”
“Peter Himmelman,” he adds, “is supposed to be the funniest guy in the world, but doesn’t show through in his songs.”
Which leads us to Himmelman’s father-in-law. “I learned from Dylan about writing in the second person. ‘You used to laugh about…’.”
Dylan has been on his mind a lot recently, since accepting a challenge from critic Peter Margasak to record a song-for-song cover of Street-Legal, a lesser-known album from 1978—the last before his Born Again phase. “That hit me hard when it came out,” Fulks says. His version-in-progress features Jason Adashevitz on vibes, Gerald Dowd on drums, Eric Schneider on clarinet, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, and Jim Dinou on keyboard (“He plays like an insane 10-year-old boy. That’s a nice tool for your arsenal”). Some tracks feature three gospel singers who he says sound “almost as good” as the ones on the original.
Robbie gave us this snippet from the Street-Legal sessions, provided that we don’t identify which song they’re interpreting.
What am I not asking you? I ask.
“Writers like you don’t talk about music enough. It’s always about the words, the subject, the process. But music is most of it.”
Fair enough, I say, let’s talk about music.
“I don’t have any musical training,” he asserts. “But I work at it and think about it all the time. I have taken music lessons as an adult. Learning a new chord really expands my mind.”
UPLAND STORIES is the latest album by Robbie Fulks. The album was nominated for two 2017 Grammy Awards: Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song ("Alabama at Night") The Guardian, NPR Music, Mojo (UK), Mountain Stage, Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune, Salon have recognized this as a best album of 2016.
.TOUR: For more about Robbie Fulks, go to http://www.robbiefulks.com. Robbie Fulks will be playing at The Hamilton in Washington D.C. on Tuesday August 15th, at NYC's City Winery on August 16th, and after a jaunt in Annapolis and Philly will play at Chicago's Lake Stage on August 20th. In September, Fulks will cover the West Coast including three Oregon dates and three CA dates (Novato, California, Sept 17th). For more concert dates go to http://www.robbiefulks.com/tour-1/
A color-blind art lover, a tone-deaf music fan, Mark Swartz is author of the novels Instant Karma (City Lights, 2002) and H2O (Soft Skull, 2006). Mark lives in Takoma Park, MD, and helps organizations tell their stories.
*Books currently on his nightstand:
· Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
· Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
· Ian McEwen, Nutshell