It’s late July 2019 and my latest Bloodshot records update drops through the electronic mailbox. My excitement is palpable. Finally, after 23 years, one of the finest records ever to pass through my CD laser beams was coming out on vinyl and I would be able to hear (and smell!) it in its full glory. Robbie Fulks’ ‘Country Love Songs’ was about to become only the third album in my entire accumulation deemed so special as to be purchased on more than one format*.
Since I first heard this record as a devout alt-country disciple in 1996 I have worshipped at the altar of its perfect mix of throwback sounds, modern outlook and emotional clout. Now it’s 24 years old. 24 years? Bloody hell, that’s older than my kids – and I love this record at least as much.
So a warning then, this is not an objective assessment of the record and its place in the Americana firmament. Don’t be looking for rational critical assessment of its technical strengths, it doesn’t do me like that (and I don’t have that vocabulary anyway). What I do have is a deeper and more resonant connection with this record than almost any other, which is odd because it is not really that kind of record. It is lyrically clever, funny and honest but it is universal, rather than personal, in the way it engages, not seeking any kind of intimate connection. Even when the topics become fabulously personal Fulks still manages to write with a distance that makes it impossible to tell if he is the subject or not.
The record is so perfect in its own time and place that it seems unnecessary to attempt to understand Fulk’s earlier career as an influence on ‘Country Love Songs’ . He was in his thirties, a father, separated and had years as a songwriter in Nashville and playing in “guitar-friendly pop” and Bluegrass bands under his belt when he made the album. So he clearly had life experience, both in general and in ‘the business’ to draw upon. But to reduce ‘Country Love Songs’ to the sum of its creator’s influences and experiences is to diminish it and to lessen its impact. Best to forget all this and imagine it sprang into the ring perfectly formed, with its gloves laced up and ready to box your unprepared ears within an inch of their life.
The album was released on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records in June 1996. At the time Fulks was back living in Chicago and had contributed tracks to the label’s early compilations of mostly Local artists from “the other side of country”. This seems like a perfect fit between Fulks and Bloodshot; mutual iconoclasm, insurgency and irreverence tempered by a shared love for country music. So it might come as a surprise to learn that Fulks was ambivalent about moving in with his Chicago neighbours. Seeing them as the best fit for his forthright style but not really buying fully into their vision of the music and noting that some of the operational difficulties they experienced gave him “a pain in my stomach”. Similarly Bloodshot, while massive fans, were also aware that the record was way more traditional than their usual output and that they would probably “get some flak for releasing it”.
The Transactional nature of the Fulks/Bloodshot partnership is emphasised by the ‘pitch letter’ with which we are led to believe he sold his record to the label. As you’re reading this then it’s a fair bet that you are familiar with the sound of the record and possibly even the letter. In some ways the letter seems too good to be true, it’s so perfect an encapsulation of the record that it feels like it had to have been written retrospectively. If not then its ample evidence that Fulk’s vision was solid and unshakeable from the start and that in producer, hardcore punk auteur Steve Albini, he had the perfect foil to enable him to realise that vision. Either way the letter does effortlessly highlight some of the key elements of the record and as such offers a simple struggling commentator a way to engage with it that is meaningful (if a little lazy).
In his pitch Fulks talks about an “early 50s production aesthetic” and the record reeks of it. Arrangements and playing that are perfect, I don’t mean brilliant, I mean perfect, from the Missouri band the Skeletons and a cast of supporting characters including junior fiddle ace Casey Driessen and magical pedal steel from one time Buckaroo Tom Brumley. The upfront vocals remain the unsung hero of these recordings, rich, flavoursome and expressive to the core. While Fulks’ singing is not gifted with the classic tone or resonance of the country greats it communicates. Writing and singing these songs he was both voracious and pissed-off and it shows. Listen again to his performance on the duet ‘Burn Together’ with Ora Jones – not bad for someone who’s never been feted for his singing.
Another element central to his vision was the songs, saying that he wanted to “violate current country songwriting trends” not by stretching boundaries or twisting the pieces into weird new shapes but by reviving “certain types of songs, long abandoned by mainstream country music”. cf: the cheating song (‘We’ll Burn Together’) the morbid drinking song (‘Barely Human’), foreign love (‘Every Kind of Music but Country’), food (‘Scrapple Song’), the instrumental (‘Pete Way’s Trousers’), his list goes on. He certainly managed the range of styles but also went further in making some of them deliberately abrasive. He has expressed disappointment that he has not received more complaints about ‘Papa was a Steel Headed Man’ or ‘Let’s Live Together’ – surely there’s enough in these two lines from the latter to have raised the hackles of the majority below the Mason-Dixon line: “Yeah, let’s live together, this ain’t Alabama / I’m not a dumb Rotarian, you’re not a Jesus-moron”. Hang on though, let’s stop playing Country Love Songs bingo and get to the point. There is one song on here that sits proudly atop his pile and pretty near the top of the big pile of all songs.
‘Barely Human’ is the best song ever written about alcoholism. Having spent too much time with loved ones going through it I know for sure it captures the hopelessness, despair and confusion at the heart of what it feels like to be trapped in this cycle of self-destruction. The song’s denouement is the single most poignant and affecting 30 seconds in recorded history. If it doesn’t get you then you have no soul. Picture an utterly defeated shell of a man, succumbing to that drink he knows will eventually do for him but which he just can’t refuse. The band drop out to leave a barely strummed acoustic and Fulks desperate heartbroken plea: “With one sip, the gin hits and wipes my head clean, brings me a vision a boy of fifteen, his eyes raised to heaven, his heart strong and brave, but I’m barely human as I fall to my grave”. Look, I did warn you this wasn’t going to be objective criticism!
Managing to do that with our emotions and then follow up with a song about a massive brat pan of frying pig innards, nipples included, and still keep us onboard is some feat. ‘Scrapple Song’ still feels slightly ridiculous to me but I can see the point when Fulks talks about using comic songs to engage his audience – “if they’re laughing they’re listening”. So across the LP we get the full gamut of his moods. He is alternately angry, funny, heartbroken, yearning even disgusted. Whatever he is, it is always experienced and expressed to the maximum, no half-measures. We’re getting another piece of his pitch / manifesto here, the commitment that songs and performance will both honestly “reflect the heart and personality of its author/singer”. Nail on the head again, ‘Country Love Songs’ is an album that is just Fulks, no concessions and nothing hidden, railing against what he calls the “poisonous tide of camp” emanating from the Nashville mainstream.
The final piece of his platform ought to be the simplest, the most obvious but is the one that has seen the most contention, rancour, spilled words and spit dummies of the lot. The record offers “13 country songs”. Easy right? Well apparently not. It was the beginning of the journey for Bloodshot and at the time their idea was to produce ‘insurgent country’, ‘shit-kicking’ insurgent country at that. So they should have fit right in with the 1996 alt-country buzz-fest – or should that be Twangcore/No Depression/roots-rock/y’alternative/Cowpunk/Neo-Traditionalist buzz-fest. Whilst he was fabulously scathing about anything to do with mainstream country, Fulks definitely saw himself as a country artist. A traditional country artist with a thoroughly modern sensibility a position he captured as “retro spirit”.
To those huffing and puffing right now about yet another pointless genre / category / name debate I hear ya, I really do but this is fundamental to ‘Country Love Songs’ and Fulks career in general. His pitch manifesto places him squarely in opposition to the mainstream whilst refusing to align himself with alt-country, with the often overly serious neo-traditionalists or anything else for that matter (“what genres are you rebelling against Robbie?” “What genres ya got”). So ‘Country Love Songs’ stood clear of everything else, too country for alt-country, too alt for country and too irreverent and confrontational for neo-tradition. Its devotion to pure country styles – 50’s Hank n’ Honky Tonk, 60’s Bakersfield, Bluegrass, even Hillbilly Boogie and Western Swing saw it living up to Bloodshot’s own declaration of applying “a steel-toed boot to the rhinestone-encrusted ass of commercialized country crap”. In distancing himself from all the existing and soon to be country clichés Fulks was establishing himself as perhaps the living embodiment of the greatest country cliché of all, the outsider.
His outsider status can be clearly seen when reading a terrific long piece in the Austin Chronicle of December 1996 reporting on that year’s SXSW and constructing then deconstructing it as the year of Alt-country’s breakthrough or as Eric Ambel dubbed it “the roots-rock scare of 1996”. Amongst the industry insider information and roll call of who’s anybody in this whole mess (from Steve Earle, through Matraca Berg and The Derailers to Jimmie Dale Gilmour and Gillian Welch) one thing that stands out like Tom’s sore thumb is a complete absence of Robbie Fulks & ‘Country Love Songs’. When the alternative ‘industry’ insiders are discussing their great and good, the artists who define all that is special about their genre, there is still no room for Robbie Fulks. Artists who would go to their grave proclaiming (and quite rightly) their pure country credentials such as Dale Watson, Don Walser or The Derailers for example were accepted yet someone whose whole stall is set out to revive real country music with heart and passion remained side-lined. Look, I’m not arguing here that ‘Country Love Songs’ should be regarded as a ‘classic’ record because it stood outside everything that was happening at the time. But the fact that it did unquestionably adds to its greatness.
It is easy and perhaps a bit lazy to argue for the ‘outsider’ status of classic albums, almost resorting to cliché in fact. What artist, great or not, has ever argued that they are rolling along at the heart of the mainstream? It’s just that, sometimes, it is undeniably true to equate the two and in the case of ‘Country Love Songs’ it is impossible to escape that conclusion. That said, I am careful not to conflate ‘outsider’ with ‘great’. I am not suggesting some kind of causal relationship. ‘Greatness’ does not automatically flow from outsider status. Attitude is most often what sets great artists apart from the mainstream. When that attitude permeates their art to the core and becomes tangible to anyone experiencing it, then it becomes a great record; as long as the songs and playing are up to scratch, of course. In this case Fulks’ attitude is the core of his art. Maintaining a forthright commitment to “themes of negativism, forceful expression, and points of view uncongenial to the prevailing ideology of fatuous feelgoodism” takes serious attitude. And it is not hard to appreciate why anyone with it might not always be embraced with open arms.
Funny how things turn out though, right? Within a few weeks of ‘Country Love Songs’ coming out Fulks’ prickly attitude had worked in his favour, beginning to turn him into an insider. People were recognising the power of ‘negativism’ perhaps. He has talked of going from having no audience before ‘Country Love Songs’ to “selling records, touring around the country, owning a house and being married” as well as receiving the appreciation of heroes like Buck Owens and Marshall Crenshaw. Something he describes in his own Fulksian way as dodging behind the scenes to “mill with the makers”.
He may never have fully cemented his insider status but he has garnered a long and decent career out of it, even if he is still having to put up with the same debates 20 years later. A line from a review of his 2016 album ‘Upland Stories’ notes that “This album’s strength is how it moves along the borders of genres rather than being confined within one”. Seems like the ‘Country Love Songs’ LP set a career template for Mr Fulks, and for a hell of a lot of other outsider upstarts as well.
This ongoing ‘noise’ about genre speaks to ‘Country Love Songs’ uniqueness. There is no definitive agreement as to its homeland. This is perhaps why an esteemed AUK compadre was moved to observe that, in their mind, Robbie Fulks is “one of the musicians who define Americana”. But in truth, how much ‘outside’ anything this record was, how much influence it has had on the direction of any kind of music related to country; none of this matters now. What does matter is how timelessly wonderful this collection still is. It’s perfect engagement with the fundamental traditions of country music mean it could be from any time in the last 60 years, or the next 60.
Everything about ‘Country Love Songs’ screams ‘I’m not fucking about here, this is deadly serious’. What the record is, what it means to people, is clear, simple and unchanging. This is not one of those records that can be different things to different people. It is thoroughly saturated in the attitude that spawned it. IT IS WHAT IT IS and if you don’t like it then you can…
* ‘Marquee Moon’ and ‘Don’t Stand me Down’ since you don’t ask