Sunday morning coming down

We went to see Robbie Fulks perform with his bluegrassy quartet at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis this past Thursday evening. We sat at table 150, right in front of Fulks. I snapped the photo from our table while he was bathed in blue lights (sorry about that).

We loved the show. You may well ask, however, who is Robbie Fulks? He is a brilliant songwriter and entertaining performer. His wry sense of humor is a prominent feature of his songwriting and virtually everything he said during the show was funny as well. I found him to be hilarious, even in his unscripted engagement with the audience, many of whose members had previously attended his shows in less deluxe venues and helped him recall the names of the Twin Cities bars he had played as he ticked them off. He observed that the dirtiest part of the Dakota was cleaner than the cleanest part of the (late) 400 Bar.

I give him especially high marks for being funny in rhyme put to music — there is a high degree of difficulty attached — but he isn’t only funny. He is drenched in the tradition of country music to which he applies his own offbeat alt-country spin.

He is also bright enough to have made it to Columbia University as an undergraduate. However, he heard Greenwich Village calling his name. He dropped out after two years to pursue his career in music.

Looking around the room during the show, I stupidly thought to myself that only fans of Fulks’s work must be in attendance and wondered how they had heard of him. On the way out, however, as we swung by the merchandise table, I laughed when I heard a member of the audience telling Fulks how much he enjoyed the show even though he’d never heard of him before.

It occurred to me that a few readers who have never heard of him before might appreciate a brief introduction to his work. His Allmusic profile by Steve Huey provides the essential background. Huey introduces Fulks this way: “Singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks is one of the more heralded talents in the alternative country movement, displaying an offbeat, sometimes dark sense of humor in many of his best moments. While Fulks’ best-known songs are often bitingly funny, he also has a gift for writing incisive, evocative material in the country and pop traditions.” Huey’s profile gives a good sense of the range of his career to date.

I can’t touch all the corners of his career here, but I thought I would compile one track from each of the studio recordings released under his name just for fun. Picking only one track has been the hardest part. In the event that any one of these strikes your fancy, please check out the disc in its entirety. You are sure to find more to your liking where it came from.

If I hadn’t heard “The Buck Starts Here” on Minneapolis’s mini public radio station KFAI back in the ’90’s, I would never have heard of Fulks. He may be an acquired taste, but from the first time I heard it I loved the song, both drenched in the country tradition and paying tribute to it at the same time. I found the disc in stock at Electric Fetus and was not disappointed. That’s Buck Owens who “starts here, with Hank sure to follow.” The song is from Fulks’s first disc, Country Love Songs. The KFAI host had a discerning ear. Fulks played “Tears Only Run One Way” from the disc during his show Thursday evening.

South Mouth is full of highlights. “Forgotten But Not Gone” is one of them.

Let’s Kill Saturday Night both raised and lowered the curtain on Fulks’s appearance on a major label (Geffen Records). The Allmusic reviewer assesses the title cut to be a charging rocker that is turned into “a cut-rate Bruce Springsteen parody.” I think that is a bit unfair, to say the least. It’s a song out of a rock genre. I value the anger coursing through it at full price and think it’s a helluva track. The Dakota audience was deeply into it on Thursday night.

The title of the Very Best of Robbie Fulks is a joke, like Phil Ochs’s Greatest Hits. The disc compiles some of Fulks’s previously uncollected work. You can hear him working the tradition in “I Just Want to Meet the Man.” It’s goes over the top, but the pedal steel kills.

He followed up with the highly regarded Couples In Trouble. Let’s go with “Mad At a Girl.”

On 13 Hillbilly Giants Fulks’s respect for the tradition manifested itself in a project reclaiming lesser known country songs of the ’50’s and 60’s. “Bury the Bottle With Me” was written by Hank Cochran.

Fulks then produced the fantastic various artists’ compilation Touch My Heart — A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck (Sugar Hill Records). See what I mean about respect for the tradition? He recruited an outstanding cast of artists including Neko Case, George Jones, Buck Owens, Bobby Bare, Mavis Staples, Hank Williams III and pedal steel legend Lloyd Green for the project. He paired himself with Gail Davies on “Shakin’ the Blues.” They do not shake the humor.

Georgia Hard is full of good tracks. “It’s Always Raining Somewhere” works the vein of anger again along with the humor. Excuse me for repeating myself, but it’s a helluva track. Shouldn’t this have been a hit for someone?

Now we come to a surprising turn in the road. Fulks released Happy: Robbie Fulks Plays the Music of Michael Jackson on his own label (Boondoggle). The name of his label reflects his sense of humor, but there’s nothing funny about his cover of “Billie Jean” or the disc itself. I won’t repeat myself, but I will confess that I’m thinking it. Fulks said of the project: “The record is not so much about Michael Jackson but having an open spirit about music.” That “open spirit about music” is the keynote.

Fulks’s most recent discs show him at the top of his form. “When You Get To the Bottom” is from Gone Away Backward. As Chicago’s Bloodshot label puts it: “The album is rooted deeply in the interplay between Fulks and a brilliant cast of Appalachian-style slingers: Robbie Gjersoe, Jenny Scheinman, Mike Bub, and Ron Spears, collectively playing banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and adding airtight and warm vocal harmonies.”

Fulks mentioned his roots in North Carolina in connection with his performance of “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals” Thursday night. This is from Upland Stories.

Fulks recorded Wild! Wild! Wild! with Linda Gail Lewis, the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis. “I Just Lived a Country Song” is below. The writing, the humor, the singing, the respect for the tradition….not Wild! Perfect! He played it with feeling on Thursday night. Sunday morning thought: “Excuse me if I’m late for heaven…”

Back near the beginning of his career Fulks was a member of the Chicago bluegrass group Special Consensus. He mentioned that he has finished recording a bluegrass disc with a large cast of guest artists including Alison Brown that is to be released early next year. I’m looking forward to the release and hope to see him if he passes through town again to promote it. In the meantime, he has posted his upcoming tour dates here.

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