Nothing Was Improvable: Robbie Fulks Reflects on 'Country Love Songs,' 20 Years Later


June 27th, 2016 by bsradmin

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Robbie Fulks's debut album Country Love Songs, released June 26th, 1996 on Bloodshot Records.

The album was recorded by Steve Albini (who just engineered Robbie's new album Upland Stories) and features appearances by the Skeletons, and Tom Brumley (of the Buckaroos!), and drop-dead, now classic cool honky tonk gems like "Every Kinda Music But Country," "The Buck Starts Here," and the sing-a-long fave "She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)." 

Here, Mr. Fulks himself reflects:

Bloodshot says that June 26th is the date Country Love Songs was released, in 1996. This immediately brings back two memories about that June. They both involved phone calls that I could hardly believe were happening. One was from Marshall Crenshaw, whose every release I had bought religiously since the first in 1982, the fantastic record with “Mary Ann” as the third song of side 2. On the phone Marshall had an aloof, daddy-o way of talking. “This is really Marshall Crenshaw?” I said. “I’ll show you my license,” he said tonelessly. It turned out he was calling because he had a couple tunes he thought I could put words to. This was the week my first record was coming out.

The next how-did-they-hear-about-me call was from Mike Stuto, an A&R factotum in New York. “It’s Mike Stuto from Columbia Records,” he said, a little self-importantly. By this time, I had already had enough of these grandees barging in with their life-changing proposals, and I decided to goof with him.

“Columbia Records?” I said, as though trying to remember the meaning of the phrase.

“You’ve heard of it, I’m sure,” he replied.

“Oh yes! That’s where you get eleven records for, like, a penny!”

He made a grunting sound. “That’s Columbia House,” he explained irritatedly. “Columbia Records is the label of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, and many others.” This marked the beginning of a lot of people at big labels not getting me, or affecting not to get me. It also marked the end of a long stretch: since the early 1980s I had tried to attract the attention of record labels with my songwriting and my demos. Now I could feel the mountain starting to shift — but I was really shocked that things were moving within days of my scruffy indie release. I had signed a six-record contract with Bloodshot and I doubt that anyone (them, me, or my lawyer) had expected that I would be fielding deals almost right away. For me it was a happy summer. Everything I had been working and sacrificing toward for many years seemed to be falling into my lap.

[Robbie Fulks Country Love Songs promo photo, 1996]

The years leading into the summer were sweet as well. I had gotten married to a beautiful Czechoslovakian who was daily making me more self-confident and productive. I had quit office temping and was once again (I’d been a bluegrass picker in the 1980s) doing music full-time, writing country songs for Music Row, gigging, and teaching guitar at Old Town School of Folk Music. In 1993 I had managed to get a tune onto a Bloodshot sampler and shortly after that I pestered them into funding a full-length release, for a budget of $3000. The record comprised several sessions. At Steve Albini’s house on Mozart Street, where there were ancient Edison cylinders and niche porn starring donkeys and members of punk bands like Killdozer lounging on a dirty couch with bad postures, I recorded “She Took A Lot of Pills” and “We’ll Burn Together” and a ditty called “Hating Women” in 1993. In 1994 I travelled to Springfield, Missouri to meet Lou Whitney and the Skeletons, whose music I loved, and to record “The Scrapple Song” and “You Break It, You Pay.” Then, in 1995, with $3000 in hand and the promise of a CD bearing my name on the horizon, I returned to both places and recorded many more.

Casey Driessen played the first notes of what was to be the first track on my first record; he was a shy 16, but fast on his way to his present stature as one of the world’s acoustic eminences. Brett Simons, soon to graduate to Liz Phair and Brian Wilson and Melissa Ethridge, but in 1995 skittish and untamed, often half out of his mind. Tuey Connell playing scales and Bela Fleck licks in Albini’s kitchen. Some song where we were hashing out an arrangement, and Albini butted in politely with “Well, you could try….” I forget what it was about, but I’ll never forget that when Tuey said, “But of course we’ll do that -- you’re the producer!” Steve wheeled around in his chair and glared bullets at Tuey, hissing, “Those are fighting words.”

[Robbie Fulks performing album cut "The Buck Starts Here" on PBS's Austin City Limits, 1997]

Paul Carestia came to the session at Steve’s with his dad, and even Paul seemed old to us at the time. He played hot licks while warming up for “I’d Be Lonesome” and Steve and I looked at each other, up in the control room, in awe of Paul’s chops. We immediately decided to trick Paul — to pretend to keep his deliberately composed passes, but to use the warming-up licks on the record. Then, on “Barely Human,” he mystically ascended to John Hughey territory.

And Dan Massey, who made everything seem relaxed and positive….and Darren Wilcox, with his bluegrass just-doing-my-job attitude and his red face…and Ora Jones, who got a little mad about my song “White Man’s Bourbon” and fled the premises. Perhaps my most vivid memory involves Tom Brumley, who played pedal steel on the second Springfield session (hired by Lou Whitney, who had used him on Jonathan Richman’s Jonathan Goes Country record). Standing in the room and playing onto tape with the legendary Tom Brumley was yet another of my beyond-belief mid-1990s moments. He had a cold and wasn’t feeling too great, and moreover, he seemed distinctly un-thrilled about recording live to 2-track, as we were. The songs were unknown to him and naturally, at $3000, we were short on time. Hearing him in the moment, and at playback, I was still ecstatic about the opportunity and the event, but I have to admit that I was taken aback by the reticence and simplicity of his lines and his timefeel. I was anticipating a little more fire. But I was still learning how to listen, how to record, still learning about every aspect of music. As I still am. Lou gave me a cassette of the session and I popped it in next day on the drive out of Missouri. When I heard “Tears Only Run One Way,” I was just overcome emotionally. It was music, recorded music, mine. The steel was — the playing was — beyond words — to my mind, nothing about the song was improvable.