This week marks the 20th anniversary of Robbie Fulks's debut album Country Love Songs, released June 26th, 1996 on Bloodshot Records.
Yesterday we published an essay by Robbie Fulks himself about the album (it's inception and aftermath), and now here's Bloodshot Records bossman Rob Miller's take.
Despite the modest and surprising success of a couple of our early records like the Old 97’s Wreck Your Life and the Waco Brothers’ debut To The Last Dead Cowboy, Bloodshot was still a few years away from supporting the lavish, tabloid-ready lifestyle a label mogul such as myself usually enjoys; it was still more Bukowski than Hef or Suge Knight. Most days found me painting and dry walling houses and apartments around Chicago, with my nights, weekends and non-worker bee days spent copying, writing, stacking, listening, and otherwise figuring out how to navigate the treacherous, mysterious, and oft-scummy waters of the “music industry.” Many a night found me bellying up to the bar at Lounge Ax or Empty Bottle in a Pigpen-like cloud of drywall dust and streaks of Linen White in my hair.
In the summer of 1996, I was working at the apartment of a retired, rather depressive chain-smoking Nisei chick-sexer (it’s a real thing, look it up, ya perverts…) in the then rather sketchy and remote Chicago neighborhood of Buena Park. The landlord (who swore the tenant was a LEGEND in the chick-sexing racket back in the day) wanted to brighten up the place, what with the walls a dreary nicotine yellow and all. We brought our gear, a boom box and our tarps. (Quick side note: the tenant’s wobbly asthmatic pug-like dog treated our drop clothes as some manner of magical canvas fire hydrant and freely and frequently availed himself to piddle on them). I also brought a cassette of the mixes of Robbie’s yet-to-be-released debut album, Country Love Songs.
[Country Love Songs album art]
Some days the tenant would bring a plastic lawn chair into whatever room we were working in, dog morosely in tow, and sit and smoke. And listen. He rarely spoke but he said he liked the record. And he hated country, he rasped.
Robbie had already contributed to our first two compilations, For A Life Of Sin and Hell-Bent. In 1994, when we were sitting around my dingy Roscoe Village apartment figuring out who to approach for submissions on our soon-to-be-launched quixotic endeavor, we were struck by the song “Cigarette State” on a Sundowners album that was lying around. Turns out it was written by one “R. Fulks,” a name we’d heard around town from his Trailer Trash Revue at Déjà Vu on Lincoln Ave. Hard to believe in this Twitter-tastic Brave New World, but we found his name in the phone book and called him. (Historical side note: a “phonebook” was an ancient text in which names, phone numbers and addresses of people and businesses were listed. It was an omnipresent necessity used to find things like plumbers, late night pizza and basic human contact). With “Cigarette State” and “She Took A Lot of Pills (And Died)” a few people began to take notice. Hearing sweaty crowds shouting the chorus of “Pills” at street fairs in Andersonville or Lincoln Park felt so subversive and wonderful. Not your usual frat boy cover band fare, to be sure.
[Robbie performing "Cigarette State"]
Buoyed by that whiff of success, Robbie typed up a hilarious proposal for a full length (damn, I wish I still had it somewhere) and we agreed on the princely sum of $3000 to record a full length—an amount that I doubt would have covered Garth Brooks’ hat-blocking needs for a regional tour at the time.
When Country Love Songs hit the proverbial shelves, the resulting indifference, rapture, confusion, hostility and buzz flowed over us like sweet, sweet wine. The country purists hated him; he was too much of a “smartass,” he didn’t take Country Music seriously. The folks who were lovin’ the wave of schticky, retro bands like Goober & the Peas, BR5-49 and the Haywagon Pea-Picker Punks were perplexed by Robbie’s lack of concern with vintage apparel and his ability to bring a room to a halt with a song like “Barely Human.” With no overt punk rock antecedents—he was not a guy who ditched his Circle Jerks records to immerse himself in the Buckaroo songbook—the oft-claustrophobic, oft-dour alt-country cabal that was coalescing around rulebooks and do/don’t lists crammed into their overalls at shows, felt obliged, at times, to point out that Robbie was not “Bloodshot material.” It was the first time (but sadly not the last) that the arbiters of such matters of authenticity made their feelings known. Industry folks had no idea what to do with him. Country radio and press ignored him, while the rock press dismissed him as too jokey, missing the depth and skill of his writing entirely. Words failed them, thesauri were tossed out windows. Some clearly wondered if super-in-demand producer Steve Albini had lost his mind by doing it.
[Robbie performing "Barely Human" on PBS's Austin City Limits]
But, still, in places, people started to get it. And what’s not to get? The lead track is instantly identifiable to anyone with even a moderately catholic record collection. “The Buck Starts Here” was perfect then, and, perhaps, is even more so now. It’s a Sermon on The Mount-level honky tonk masterpiece. The dark humor (with that irresistible beat) of "She Took A Lot of Pills (And Died)," had a novel’s worth of pathos in it. "Rock Bottom" has a swing as sweet and supple as Al Kaline’s (Hey, I’m from Detroit; bite me if you’re looking for an Ernie Banks reference…). “The Scrapple Song,” a paean to Pennsylvania’s iffy contribution to our National Cuisine, hit home for me, as I LOVED my grandma’s homemade stuff (my room was right above the cook stove and the smell of it frying in the morning would come up through the vent and roust me from under the quilts in the unheated room…). Robbie was surprised I had heard of scrapple, and a bit repelled that I liked (and still like) it so. “We’ll Burn Together” takes the C&W mixed-gender duet straight to hell, literally. "Let’s Live Together" (a good flipside to "We’ll Burn Together,” incidentally) sticks it to moralistic blowhards as joyously and, I submit, as pointedly as the Dead Kennedys ever could, and has a great time doing it. There ain’t a clam on the record.
Throughout, Country Love Songs turns the time-honored tropes of country music on their heads, breathes new life into them, ignores them, skewers them, but above all honors and respects them. It never talks down to the traditions and history. It is more “true” to the spirit of the music than the generation before (and since) who profess to be the One True Church standard bearers.
A moment that STILL makes the monkey fur on my arms rise when I think about it was a show at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn shortly after the album’s release. Robbie, still then a fairly unknown performer in the area, was opening for the already legendary Dave Alvin. The room was packed with a decidedly rabid Alvin fanbase. Robbie came out to middling opening act applause and, in the course of 40 minutes or so, worked the room into a froth. He OWNED them by the end. It was the first of dozens and dozens of times I’d say to myself, “That was the best Robbie show I’ve ever seen.” (It happened most recently at his album release show in April for Upland Stories at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.)
[Robbie Fulks and his band (at the time) performing at Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis for MRMF (an early SXSW knockoff) sometime in the mid-90s (notice the Sublime and R.E.M. merch). Robbie Gjersoe, the young fella playing the telecaster, is still in Robbie's touring and studio band.]
Fully formed and, yet, just the beginning, Country Love Songs is a record I go back to all the time. It still sounds fresh, exciting, and thoroughly original. And no one, IMFAO (as the kids say nowadays) has touched it since, except, maybe, Robbie himself (see South Mouth: 20th anniversary coming October 2017…).
Finally, 20 years later, I’d like to both fess up and apologize about something I chalk up to pure flat-headed dumbness. When offering suggestions for sequencing, I found “Tears Only Run One Way” to be one of the weaker tracks, hampered by an overly sunny production aesthetic. So, I buried it as track 12. I hereby submit that I could not have been more wrong. It is, in fact, 2:49 of pure country-tinged pop joy and one of my all-time faves from a body of work already brimming with all-time faves. Sorry Robbie. Mea Culpa.