Graded on a Curve: Robbie Fulks,
Country Love Songs

The year was 1996, and while he had a 45 and a pair of appearances on Bloodshot Records comps under his belt, singer-songwriter and guitarist Robbie Fulks’ big breakthrough was Country Love Songs, which actually delivered the goods that so many prior “real country” propositions promised but failed. There are numerous reasons why, and we’ll cover ‘em below, but the most important fact to relate is that Bloodshot’s July 24 reissue is the first time the record’s been released on vinyl. It’s the straight but sturdy reissue treatment: 180gm black vinyl (no bonus cuts), liner notes, drawings, and a download code. For those who enjoy spinning classic country on their turntable, it’s purchase would seem mandatory.

13 songs in 38 minutes, with hardly a sound in its freshly pressed grooves that would seem to postdate the compact disc era; it registers as crazy that Country Love Songs has never been on vinyl prior to 2019, but there it is. Actually, it doesn’t strike me as crazy, as I’ve tried to purchase it on wax a few times across the last few decades and have until now been rebuffed by its unavailability.

The situation seems to be the same for all of Fulks’ stuff prior to 2013’s return to Bloodshot, Gone Away Backwards, but let’s not stray from the good news at hand. Featuring backing from The Skeletons and ex-Buckaroo pedal steel ace Tom Brumley, Country Love Songs manages to embody and personalize the sounds of country music’s heyday with seeming ease.

Undeniably a throwback but without radiating a dusted off relic vibe, in part through a few savvy flashes of dark lyrical humor, the record is neither a watered-down approximation of the good stuff nor does it go over the top in trying to impart its realness. It’s simultaneously a highly relaxed and instrumentally sharp album, cut partly with Steve Albini in Chicago, though his recognizable approach to noise-rock heaviness is absent.

What remains is his professionalism, as this is a record with tangible analog depth (making its arrival on vinyl all the more worthwhile). It’s also a diverse LP, kicking off with the hillbilly boogie of “Every Kind of Music But Country,” where the verses and chorus (written by Tim Carroll, formerly of Hoosier punks The Gizmos) tackle the then contemporary listener disdain for country music with humor rather than bitterness. It quickly establishes Fulks as something other than a wet-behind-the-ears country-rocker.

“Rock Bottom, Pop. 1” adjusts into upbeat honky-tonk territory and further emphasizes that non-clichéd lyrics are arguably Fulks’ strongest suit. This is not to suggest he doesn’t engage with some familiar templates; “The Buck Starts Here” employs the by-now well-ensconced maneuver of namechecking country greats, in this case Buck Owens and Hank Williams.

It’s just that he doesn’t go overboard with the idea. The song isn’t a parade of nostalgia but rather just illuminates why those steel guitar-imbued country weepies were so prevalent. And Country Love Songs offers a weepy for the ages with the slow, spare, pedal soaked “Barely Human,” but it and “The Buck Starts Here” get separated in the sequence with the strum and stomp of “(I Love) Nickels and Dimes.” Loaded with sweet slide guitar, it’s about as close as this record gets to country-rock.

Actually, that’s not exactly true. “I’d Be Lonesome,” has doghouse bass slapping that hints at rockabilly, but even with a few near hiccups, it’s all just too sophisticated (don’t read that as sophisto) to fit the category. The spots where the rhythm gets most assertive do remind me just a little bit of Buddy Holly. But “She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died)” injects that Owens’ Bakersfield sound with the aforementioned dark humor. It’s one tactic amongst a few that helps to separate Fulks from predecessor Dwight Yoakum.

Another is “We’ll Burn Together,” a guy-gal duet with Ora Jones, which frankly chalks up a higher level of success than some of his models, in part because Fulks and Jones really emote with relish. Plus, the playing, if firmly tapped into classic C&W simplicity, is far from an afterthought. Instrumentally, “Let’s Live Together” swings to the other extreme as a lively shuffle with some of record’s best bow-pulling (Casey Driessen and Steve Rosen are the credited fiddlers on the album).

When I first heard Country Love Songs, my impression was that “The Scrapple Song” plunged too deep into the humorous, but over time I’ve come to appreciate its somewhat Prairie Home Companion-ist aura (as opposed to the sub-Hee Haw stabs at yucks that marred so many ’70s-era country novelty numbers). “The Scrapple Song” contrasts pretty sharply with the following instrumental “Pete Way’s Trousers,” a beautiful piece of work suggesting the record was released by Rounder or Flying Fish in the mid-’80s rather than Bloodshot in ’96.

“Tears Only Run One Way” provides one more dose of crisp post-Bakersfield action, and in evading the formulaic it’s a treat. “Papa Was a Steel-Headed Man” brings a finale spirited enough that some might say it rocks, but the instrumental flair (complete with bluegrass-like solo showcases) reminds me more of the oncoming Americana wave, though Fulks’ biting words keep things from ever getting too polite.

What Country Love Songs is not is country-punk, at least in execution. In attitude, I won’t argue, as Robbie Fulks’ next album South Mouth (hopefully on vinyl soon) included the song “Fuck This Town.” What Country Love Songs is, is the titular style done right. It was an utter breath of fresh air in 1996, and it sounds even better today.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text