Saturday, March 23, 2013

Countrier Than Thou

Category:  Birthday tribute

I’ll begin with a confession:  I have grown to HATE the word “genius” used in relation to music.  It is so overused and misused that I wish we had a music law that would prohibit defining the lower-than-lowest common denominator, cookie-cutter factory manufactured, you-know-what’s-gonna-happen-by-the-fourth-word-in-the-song lyrics modern commercial music as “genius.”  Just because it sells doesn't mean it’s “genius.”

With that preface, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish a very happy fiftieth birthday on March 25th to a REAL musical genius:  Robbie Fulks.

For the 99.9999% of the world who has no clue as to who I just mentioned, imagine Dwight Yoakam’s neo-traditionalist music style backing Warren Zevon’s lyrics and you’re getting close to the ball park.  Twisted and sick....and oh, is he country.

Like a lot of people, I discovered Fulks courtesy of his brilliant "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)."  Superficially there's nothing earth-shattering about that.  After all, country is the music of death:  Moon Mullican lamented dead mama in "Sweeter Than the Flowers," Charlie Louvin and Lefty Frizzell sang of visits to the grave from the perspective of the people in the grave ("Will You Visit Me on Sundays" and "The Long Black Veil," respectively), and how many people named Willie have killed or been killed in country music history (e.g., "Katie Dear" and "Knoxville Girl" from the Louvins' Tragic Songs of Life album) -- so much so that someone spotted a bumper sticker at a bluegrass festival that said, "Stop Willie before he kills again!"

Ah, but there's more to Fulks' tune than you find in the average country song.  Instrumental backing that would sound right at home on a Challenge-era Wynn Stewart track accompanied Fulks' superb tale of a has-been actress and her suicide.  Most country songs dealing with death don't really tell you that the subject of the song is dead (opting for nice euphemisms instead), so the abrupt giveaway as to what happens in the title is a surprise.  You know she's dead before you listen, and you know how.  That's enough to grab you to listen so you find out why.  The fall from Hollywood superstar to has-been living in a rat-infested "hovel on the lower east side" is chronicled in a way that betrays the kiss-off nature of the title.

As I listened more to and more to Robbie's music I found the proverbial wild side of life that Hank Thompson once sang about presented in two remarkably fresh ways for modern country music.  First, in the era of "auto-tune-the-beautiful-but-untalented-superstar" and "southern-rock-is-now-country" music that made the 80's neo-traditional movement all but a memory Fulks' music is about as country as you could get.  And good:  his flatpicking is some of the best you're going to hear.  Fulks loves Doc Watson and it shows in his guitar playing.

He is also brutally honest.  While affairs and one-night stands have been common subject matter in country music about as long as country music has been around, you have rarely heard them described the way Fulks does.  Homer & Jethro once searched for "another way of singing the sweet words 'I love you.'"  Fulks has found several different ways, most of them brilliant, some of them hilarious...and occasionally they are explicit.  The double entendre in "Cigarette State" is a great example:  you know he ain't talkin' about no cigarette!  Fulks also shares something in common with the protagonist of "Dirty Mouth Flo," he "cusses like a sailor" (and take it from a former squid, that descriptor is not a stereotype!).  He's way behind Pacino in Scarface for use of the F-word, but it's still present.  (Like people pay $15 to hear it in a movie but object to it in a song?)

Honestly, that, to me, is not necessarily a detriment.   Life isn't G-rated, so why should the songs that are part of what Harlan Howard famously described as "three chords and the truth" be?  And, like the aforementioned "excitable boy," who was unjustly labeled "the Sam Peckinpah of rock and roll" based on the violence depicted in three songs (out of twenty songs Zevon had released at that point), Fulks may be mislabeled as an "alt-country smartass" simply because he said Music City could go perform an act of self-procreation, to politely paraphrase the title of one of his songs.  Not everything he does is funny or rude.  "The Buck Starts Here," for instance, requires at least one keg of beer to cry into and easily could have been a massive hit (except for the fact that most modern fans wouldn't get the reference to Buck and "Cryin' Time;" and, of course, it was far TCFCR [too country for country radio] when it was released).  "Can't Win for Losing You" or "Rock Bottom, Pop. 1" could easily have a home on an Alan Jackson or George Strait CD without raising an eyebrow.

One thing that is not a mislabel, however, is the outright intelligence in Robbie Fulks songs.  He's not singing at you, he is singing to you.  He is smart and he knows his fans are, too.  They'll get the jokes, and he won't have to stop the show while someone pulls out their cellphone to look up a word like dilletante on the web if he uses it in a song (which he did, in "Countrier Than Thou," his answer to people [mostly northerners] who complained about his rock-edged songs such as those that comprised most of his 1998 gem Let's Kill Saturday Night).  That probably explains why he never became a superstar.  Anymore music is made to be background noise for a video, not to be so lyrically vivid and visual that a video would only detract from the lyrics (such as the incredible "Night Accident," a song that will give you goosebumps even after the 50th listen).

I'm going to see Robbie Fulks next month as a birthday present to myself.  I'm sorry it's going to be in a 100-seat bar.  If the world isn't ready for a guy who covers songs by Michael Jackson and by Johnny Paycheck, references Hank Williams and Joan Jett in his lyrics, or does shows where he pits Jerry Reed against Lou Reed, doing Lou Reed's songs while impersonating Jerry Reed and having Jerry's songs set to Lou's punk sounds (can't wait for the Bessie Smith versus Connie Smith night!), then it's their loss.  Meanwhile, I'll wish a very happy half-century birthday to a man who has set the bar for being a genius in the world of music extremely high.


cdalmas said...

Damn well said.

gdalmas said...

Damn well said.