What does it say about us when it is such a big
surprise to be reminded how much fun it is to love
music? Sometimes we want to learn from music or about
music. Sometimes we want to wallow in music
emotionally. Sometimes we're too focused on listening
to the right music (whatever that is). Sometimes we
mindlessly crank up the volume and have fun with it.
But how often do we bring all of that together and
exhult in the tremendous experience of a FUN live show
that hits us in the head, in the heart, and in the
gut? Better question: Why does it feel like it's so
When Robbie Fulks took the stage in Arlington, VA on
the opening leg of a tour that will take him up and
down the east coast, then over into Texas during the
next month, I found myself wondering just that. His
blistering one-hour set opened by borrowing "Karn Evil
9" from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, closed by borrowing
"Dancing Queen" from ABBA, packed some of his own best
songs in between, and ripped the roof off of the Iota
Restaurant & Bar. You may guess that a lot of winking
went on during that set--and maybe it did. But maybe
too, Robbie Fulks is a man with a message: dont take
it all so seriously. Maybe thats why his new album,
The Very Best of Robbie Fulks, promises that
"the theme is Fun, yours and mine." That capital F on
fun is important.
Four albums can leave us little doubt that Robbie
Fulks is a gifted songwriter, and songs like "God Isnt
Real" and "Cold Statesville Ground" convince us that
he has big thoughts that he wants to communicate to
us. But the only big message delievered that night in
Arlington was to get up on your feet and enjoy the
beat--"happy feelings," as the man said himself. And
with that he sang some of his best-known cuts from
five years of published songwriting, not even pausing
to smirk when he sang about "four white guys in each
band" in "Roots Rock Weirdos"--with three white guys
standing behind him.
The Iota Restaurant & Bar in Arlington, VA is not
Madison Square Garden, and Robbie Fulks is not a
millionaire rock star. He'll probably never play the
Garden and he'll only make a million bucks with some
sharp wits and the help of Charles Schwab. But those
of us who have been buying his albums and those of us
who were packed elbow-to-elbow in Iota too tight to
move should know by now that he probably doesn't want
those things anyway. I don't think Robbie Fulks is in
"the business" to feather his own nest and I'm not
even sure hes in it for us. What I can tell you is
that I'm sure hes having Fun.
You've just come out of Annapolis, you've just
gotten started through Ohio and Pennsylvania, you're
on your way down the east coast. Hows it been going
for you so far?
It's been going great. I'm not one to hype things
either, but it's been going great. We're turning the
corner on the old touring thing. As little as six
months ago, coming through towns like Columbus and
Cleveland where we're not really strong, coming
through them on a Sunday or Monday--really terrible
nights like that--would've been just disaster. But
it's been going nice.
Do you think that's the exposure you got through
being with Geffen, or do you think it's just that
you've been plugging away at it?
I think it's patient, plodding progress for--whatever
it's been--for five years, coming back to towns again
and again and again, not giving up.
You're from Pennsylvania. Do crowds there have any
sense of your being some kind of a native son?
In Pittsburgh? No, not really. The places I lived as a
kid where I come back and play, like North Carolina or
Virginia or Pennsylvania, it's building from scratch
like anywhere else, I think, because it's been so long
since I lived there.
You say you've been plugging away at it for a
while, and I think the first thing I really want to
talk about is what your career was like before
Country Love Songs. Because I see in the liner
notes from The Very Best of Robbie Fulks that
"Hamilton County Breakdown" was recorded in 1989. So
were you recording that far back?
Yeah, I was in [Special Consensus] Bluegrass Band for
the late eighties, 1987 to 1990. And then 1990 to 1993
I had a show I did in Chicago in a couple places
called the Trailer Trash Show, and the only recording
I made out of that was a single, two songs called
"Jean Arthur" and "Little King," both of which I put
out later on. After that I sort of fronted a
songwriter band in town for a couple of years at the
same time I was doing the National Staff Songwriting
thing for a publishing company down there. Things with
Bloodshot started in 1994.
So 1994, 1995, that's when they signed you and you
started doing some of the stuff we can find on the
compilations with Bloodshot, the songs we can find on
the new album?
Yeah, I started working on Country Love Songs
at the end of 1994, and one of those from the first
session--"She Took a Lot of Pills and Died"--ended up
on one of their compliations and then the full record
came out in 1996.
You bring up one of the songs I wanted to ask you
about, "She Took a Lot of Pills and Died". Did you
have somebody specific in mind when you were writing
Between her, Jean Arthur and Susanna Hoffs, I get
the feeling you may watch a lot of movies?
Yeah. I used to. Since I have two little kids--I've
got a sixteen-year-old kid and two little kids--and
since the two babies came along it's been like no
movies for the last three years, I think. But there
were ten years when I was really catching up when the
videos came along. When I got a VCR I was watching
just millions of movies all the time, catching up on
everything I'd always wanted to see.
Old movies and new movies?
Mostly old ones. I'm into art movies and I'm into
Hollywood classics, and I'm into a lot of American
independent stuff--anything that's got some sort of
quality to it, I guess.
Do you have a favorite you've seen recently?
No, I get to check out a video like every three months
and I fall asleep within twenty minutes. Kids, you
know [laughs]. I can't make it up to midnight anymore.
You're going to be out on tour until the end of
April. For those of us who live regular lives and dont
go out on tour for months at a time, leaving your
family for that long sounds like a tough thing to
Well, it's the kind of thing where performing is
so--"rewarding" is a goofy sounding word, but I really
miss it when I'm at home, when I'm not doing it. And
then the day I go out on the road I start missing the
kids right away, so it's pretty much an even
Some of the reading I've done talks about some
influences you've had that might surprise somebody who
has just listened to your Bloodshot
records--influences like Elvis Costello and The
Pretenders. A song like "Tears Only Run One Way" is a
song that requires some literacy both for the
songwriter and the listener. Wordplay is an important
part of your songwriting, language is clearly
important to you. Does that come from reading, does it
come from anywhere specific? Do you think of your
songs--or songs in a general sense--as some kind of
I think it comes from all of the above. I think it
comes from just being in love with words. But as far
as the nexus between literature and songwriting, I
think it's a dangerous leap to make. A lot of guys
have tried to write songs that mine the same territory
as literature, but fail terribly and come out as bad
literature and worse pop songs. And while maybe three
of the guys that have tried it have succeeded from
time to time, Lou Reed and Paul Simon and Elvis
Costello, one or two others, I think it's an
incredibly hard thing to do and I think there's
nothing wrong with a fluffy piece of bubblegum
songwriting, if it works at what it's trying to do.
Those things can be written well on their own terms.
I'm inclined to think that a lot of people would be
better off if they found their own strength, even if
it's something comparatively trivial. If it's
something that doesn't remind everybody of a Faulkner
novel, if it reminds people more of
they do what they're strongest at and not worry so
much about importance or immortality, because there's
so much great, disposable stuff.
And I think you'd be one to sing the virtues of,
let's say the Bangles, or anybody who's after a good,
three-chord hook, but at the same time I think you'd
agree that if you can say something about those dark
places in the human mind, that's often the best kind
of songwriting if it can be emotionally authentic.
I don't know if thats true or not. I think making
people dance or making people laugh is probably as
useful as making people upset or depressed. I agree
that what you're saying seems axiomatic when you're a
songwriter and you're after something more lasting,
that it needs to be done in a serious way, it needs to
go darker and deeper. But I'm not sure if it's true.
It just seems true. I think there's lots of ways to
write songs, there's lots of good songs. And to me a
simple novelty song or a rant like "Fuck This Town"
has its place in the world and so does a six-minute
murder ballad that might get sort of metaphysical or
This will be the last heavy question, but do you
think that to be serious, or to be of some kind of
literary merit, that a song needs to have a serious
theme? Or can a well thought-out rant like "Fuck This
Town" have that merit, at least in the sense that it
works the language and makes you think so you can
appreciate it? I'm not asking you to define
literature, but do you think of it as being so narrow
that it needs to be about a serious theme?
I don't know. You know, I think about what we're
talking about from time to time and I'm not sure I'm
able to formulate some kind of a universal, apodictic
response. But as far as the comparison between
literature and music, at least in music, I think you
can go wrong by looking too much at the meaning of the
words, at the lyrical content of the song. I think
there's more to it than that. The key way to look at
it for me is, is the music going to last? Is this song
or this song going to speak to somebody in two hundred
years in the way that Moby Dick is going to
speak to somebody? That it speaks to somebody now, in
a hundred years, and will in another hundred years?
And it seems kind of perverse to think that it's true,
but I think pop songs can do that. There are pop songs
that will mean something to somebody hundreds of years
from now. I think that already we have Jimmy Rogers
and the Miller songs. When you look back over a
hundred years of music, there's music that still
reaches us today and will continue to do so a long
time from now. There's not so much in those songs,
like the word-for-word meaning of "Waiting for a
Train" by Jimmy Rogers, but it's a whole world that's
created in that three minutes of music. I think it's
not so much the subject that you're writing about,
whether you decide to go light or heavy, as it is that
world that's created in the three minutes.
NEXT WEEK: Robbie on Geffen Records, songwriting,
Let's Kill Saturday Night and "White Man's