Twisting the knife

Believe what the alt-country press has to say about Robbie Fulks and you’ll think he’s just a few chords short of toppling the pop-country regime.

As depicted, Fulks is a battle-hardened ex-Nashville musical malcontent, hell-bent on lyrical and melodic mayhem. In fact, a recent article in No Depression even implied that Fulks’ music is only a few shades shy of punk.

“I think that’s really a crock of s••t,” says Fulks into the other end of the phone, not so much with the anger of a miscast punker, but rather with the exasperated reflection of a man perpetually misunderstood.

“I mean, I’m self-determined, that’s all.”

Given his history, it’s not surprising that Fulks has gotten a bit of a reputation. After a bright start as guitarist for the Grammy-nominated bluegrass group Special Consensus, he tried to break into the country mainstream as a songwriter. In 1997, frustrated with attempts to make it in Music City, he recorded the distinctly anti-Nashville tune “F••k This Town” (from South Mouth, released by Bloodshot Records). While the song gave him instant alt-country credibility, and particularly resonated with other like-minded musicians, it also earmarked him as a novelty songwriter.

Some have even gone so far as to dub him a sort of alt-country version of “Weird Al” Yankovic. And, not surprisingly, Fulks finds that a little irritating.

“[It’s] frustrating that [“F••k This Town”] is the one song that has to represent me,” he says. “I like the song and everything, but it’s one of those songs that is fun for a while, and then you want to move on and do something else.”

And he has. He’s on his seventh studio album now, a brand-new grab bag of country tunes called Georgia Hard (Yep Roc), which seems far more a journey of nostalgia than a would-be reinvention of the genre. The songwriting is clever, the playing is excellent, and the heart of the thing comes from a pre-Garth Brooks world.

It’s good, but it’s hardly revolutionary. Still, Fulks has kept his hard-to-shake reputation.

So — is this all just hype, or is he really a rebel?

“Only in the sense that mainstream country has become such a ridiculously codified and narrow-minded genre based on what program directors will play on the radio,” says Fulks. “By that yardstick, I’m like Abbie Hoffman. But, the garbage that makes it onto the stupid Clear Channel country station of your neighborhood is only about 10-percent of what’s out there.”

As a songwriter, Fulks has also become known for his love of creating exceptionally tragic characters, whom he then stabs, and stabs again, twisting the knife. His protagonists tend to make it big, or at least find something to drag them out of misery, only to have their stories end in heartbreak — or, more frequently, death.

“Irony is a writerly device, and it can drive a song,” Fulks acknowledges. “Especially in country music, a phrase is everything, and irony comes into play because a phrase will come to twist and dominate a situation.”

It’s hard not to conjure a mental image of him having a little devilish glee with his musical projects — particularly when it comes to fiddling with his own reputation. For instance, the songwriter is still waiting for the right time to release his album of Michael Jackson covers, something he and his band worked on for more than two years.

“Some people thought it was the best piece of music I’ve done,” boasts Fulks, going on to explain that, even though the collection has yet to see any kind of real release, copies of the album have already made it onto the Internet. In fact, it’s already been reviewed. “It elicited the reaction that I didn’t need to project an image of shtick any more than I’d already done in my career,” he admits. “I think that’s a valid point.”

While his fans know there’s much more to Fulks’ music than heavy-handed irony and comedic twists, he’s also aware that the mainstream world may never catch on. In other words, once a novelty act, always a novelty act.

“It’s a weird thing. It’s like you go to one communist meeting and Joseph McCarthy is after you for the rest of your life.”

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