Honky-tonk rebels looking for a new king could do worse than to crown Robbie Fulks. The Pennsylvania native and exponent of the Chicago alt-country sound has absorbed Hank Williams' and Bob Wills' lessons in narrative and heartache -- and added his own unique quirks.
Fueled by a reputation for eclectic live shows and two albums for indie label Bloodshot Records (1996's "Country Love Songs" and 1997's "South Mouth"), Fulks, 34, kicked open the doors with weepers ("Barely Human"), shuffles ("Every King of Music but Country") and crazed odes to ethnic comfort food ("The Scrapple Song"). Major labels took notice, and Fulks quickly signed to Geffen, where his current project, "Let's Kill Saturday Night," hangs in limbo due to Interscope Records' acquisition of Geffen. "It is extremely likely I will be dropped," says Fulks. "There are about 50 acts [on Geffen] trying to squeeze through a window that permits only five or six."
What direction Fulks' next project might take is also unclear. "Let's Kill Saturday Night" -- with its guest spots from Lucinda Williams, Sam Bush, Bill Lloyd and ex-NRBQ frontman Al Anderson -- represents a shift toward more pop-oriented songs rather than the full-throttle honky-tonk affair that Fulks' first two albums had suggested to his fans. "At Bloodshot the name of the game is cow-punk," says Fulks. "Stray too far and the label just says ‘no.' Get too far from the twang and it's not of interest to them anymore."
Fulks was born in York, Pa., a town he describes as "smelling like crack cocaine, peppermint patties and bluegrass music." Upon moving to Chicago at the dawning of the '90s, Fulks taught folk music and formed the Trailer Trash Revue -- a four-piece band with go-go dancers. He also played with the bluegrass band Special Consensus from 1987 to 1990, performing on their Grammy-nominated album "A Hole in My Heart."
Later, Fulks moved to Nashville, where he worked as a staff songwriter from 1993 to 1996. None of his 115 songs were recorded by other artists, making the entire venture a frustrating commercial failure. "I just couldn't seem to write songs with direct lyrics that would appeal to Oklahoma housewives in their 40s," says Fulks, who in reaction penned the anti-Nashville "love" song "Fuck This Town."
Still, Fulks says there is no better place than Nashville for his style of music. "Where else could you go that has this many good pickers and singers and writers?" he asks. "Besides, it's much more Southern and laid back, and you often end up getting together with the engineer in the next room and having a cookout."