Not Coasting

Robbie Fulks explores new country.

He's a self-proclaimed roller-coaster junkie and you can still hear the kid in his voice when he effuses about some of the biggest coasters ever at Ohio's Cedar Point, famous home to, among famous others, the Mean Streak: the fastest, tallest wood-frame coaster in the world. So for Robbie Fulks, the best and in fact only good part of living in his suburban Chicago McMansion is not the quick 16-mile commute into the city; it is, of course, the nearby Six Flags "Great America" amusement park, with 11 world-class coasters and a titillating variety of gravity-testing novelty rides. Fulks' three sons probably don't mind it being nearby, either.

Even in brief conversation, it's apparent that Fulks is a guy who knows his coasters, a fact that is somehow not surprising--per his reputation, he comes off as the smart, precocious type. Like the kind of guy who takes an interest in something and then, the next thing you know, he's a font of information on the subject.

Certainly Fulks' perspicacity has come in handy wrangling contractual legalese as the principal of his own music business venture, Boondoggle Records. Like many a musician dodging the recording industry monolith and its pitfalls, Fulks started his own label. He has since been nearly single-handedly manifesting a career in the margins, walking a respectably straight line in the dizzying wake of his own whirl on the Music Biz Mean Streak.

Like most musicians who write around sphincter-tight commercial radio prescriptions, in order to keep both his integrity and career intact Fulks found himself having to extend his creativity beyond creating his music and into the business of making the music pay.

Lawyerless and managerless, Fulks' career is his own industry, and his music is necessarily productive on a variety of fronts. Limited film and somewhat more lucrative commercial licenses and jingles--mainly for beer commercials and a notable hip-hop Coca-Cola commercial--augment an income otherwise derived from royalties and touring.

Fulks maintains a well-respected publicist and booking agent, and otherwise calls his own shots. He understands the mainstream music business for the hit mill it is, and has practical plans to eke out a living without selling too much of his soul--at least not the important parts. He was recently featured in GQ in a cowboy hat, but don't let that fool you.

BEFORE HE WAS AN posterboy, Robbie Fulks was earning bread and butter as a plain old folk and country musician and songwriter. For 12 years he taught guitar and ensemble performance at the Old Town School of Music in Chicago, and explored his musical interests in a variety of area bands, the culmination of which was the Consensus Bluegrass Band.

Recording was the next natural step. Fulks' first two records for Bloodshot--Country Love Songs in 1996 and South Mouth in 1997--drew him a spotlight in insurgent country circles. Some of the Music Row regulars took notice, and thus ensued Fulks' illuminating and demoralizing stint as a contracted Nashville songwriter. While not successful in Trisha-Yearwood-mega-hit sort of way, it was an experience worthy of his hallmark South Mouth homage, "Fuck This Town."

All of the attention caught the eye the major labels, specifically Geffen. Fulks signed on, and from there it was an all-too-familiar fiasco when Geffen released his third record, Let's Kill Saturday Night. The album failed expectations all around. Many purist fans didn't know what to make of all those electric gee-tars, and more importantly commercial radio didn't find its promised single.

Even Fulks admits that many of his harder-core country fans probably saw the record as "an unfortunate sidestep."

Similarly, Liz Phair's experience with Columbia right around the same time. And the Old 97s' with Elektra. It's the same brisk thrill ride the major labels offered a lot of mid-'90s alternative-press darlings with devoted cult followings and little prior radio play or touring experience.

Saturday Night was hyped by the label as Fulks' crossover breakthrough--something analogous to when Wilco went rock and roll--and yet after about four months in the spotlight, the record was basically dead. Determined to be too little of this or too much of that, both artist and music fell victim as Geffen itself took a bumpy ride on a slippery economic slope, spilling talent at every turn before the end.

With his Geffen contract bought out by Universal, Fulks soon returned to Bloodshot, releasing The Very Best of Robbie Fulks, a characteristically sarcastic, genre-hopping compilation comfortably closer to home for his country fans.

Y2K saw Fulks debut his own Boondoggle Records with a classic collection of his favorite country standards, 13 Hillbilly Giants, which happens to be slated for re-release by Bloodshot later this fall. Again the hipsters and shucksters alike took heart that Robbie was back in fine, bullocks-country form; but sometimes it takes two steps back for one step forward.

Fulks' newest effort and his sixth release, Couples in Trouble, is self-produced and was recorded with some help from longtime friend and cohort Steve Albini. Fulks' first full-length collection of originals in three years, it has been in development since Let's Kill Saturday Night.

Saturday Night was much more rock and pop than fans of "She Took a Lot of Pills and Died" and "Dirty Mouth Flo" anticipated. Couples in Trouble is a stylistic continuation of that divergence, though less energetic and more lushly contemplative. Stalwarts take heed: This is an album with keys, horns and strings galore--and did I mention the synths and samples?

Though his tag is tied pretty tightly, Fulks claims that Couples in Trouble may be the record "that finally throws them off the scent." The one that ultimately divests fans of a two-dimensional interpretation of his music and interests them instead in the expansiveness of his talent and range of abilities.

Couples in Trouble is a 12-song cycle held together thematically if not necessarily musically. The songs cover a hectare of musical ground, starting at the beginning with the Celtic bluegrass of "In Bristol Town One Bright Day," and immediately diverging without pause into the pop medium of "Anything for Love." And on goes the coaster ride from there, with a few more dips into tradition for comic relief and a semblance of consistency.

Couples is overall a dark and complicated record chronicling love's jeopardies. In each song, the music and orchestration are tailored to suit the voice of the story, and theatricality is evident throughout. Couples is less Buck Owens and a lot more Elvis Costello. Just listen to "Mad at a Girl." "Real Money" is the single, and the song Fulks claims is the best all-around representative of the record, if there could be just one.

Fulks, whose tours always somehow miss the Southwest, finally finds his way for the first time to Tucson in support of Couples in Trouble. And just as the album is a departure, so too is the current run of dates a break from Fulks' four-piece or solo acoustic live tradition. He is bringing with him an ensemble of five of the players from the record: guitarist Grant Tye, drummer Gerald Dowd, bassist Lorne Rall and the notable addition of keyboard player Joe Terry.

According to Fulks, expect a show that is different from the crazed country showman you may have seen elsewhere. This show is expected to be taller, longer and more musically florid, perhaps a little more melancholy and mature. In any event, a one-of-a-kind Robbie Fulks experience for musicians and audience alike, complete with samples.

Check your hat at the door--this is truly new country for the fan and unfamiliar alike.

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