Fulks is performing Friday at the Beachland Ballroom.
By JOHN BENSON
Making a buck and singing his songs is what keeps Robbie Fulks going. Capable of gut-wrenching tear-in-your-beer material that is more traditional than alt country, this hard luck singer/songwriter is still waiting to be in the right place at the right time. This hasn't been the case of late.
"It was tough last night," said Fulks in a phone call from Berkeley, Calif. "There were some guys fighting and the fight sort of spilled out onto the stage and knocked some stuff over. Unfortunately, we were playing a little bit of a hippie, NPR-ish type of room where they didn't have any brawny guys there to deal with it so they tried to deal with them by sort of persuasive appeals to character and it really only escalated it."
So, what is it about Robbie Fulks, a somewhat docile performer whose music is more cerebral than visceral, that brings out such aggression in an audience?
"I don't know but occasionally those people do come out, the angry insurgent type with black shirts and they're already drunk and have an attitude before you played a note," Fulks said. "The funny thing is, they always show up at the most inappropriate venues and everybody is sitting down and quiet. They think it's a CBGB's kind of a show or something." Consider this a warning of sorts regarding Fulks' upcoming show Friday at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland.
Perhaps the confusion, albeit slight, stems from this chameleonic singer's continuous evolution and experimentation. Since he first arrived on the indie alt rock circuit over a decade ago, Fulks has dabbled in everything from roots rock, straight rock and adult alternative fare to bluegrass, classic honky tonk and Bakersfield country.
Then there is the black cloud of sorts that has followed Fulks for years. The run of bad luck or bad timing began in the late '90s when he signed with Geffen Records, only to be dropped as the label folded and just as his new album "Let's Kill Saturday Night" hit the streets. A few years later, his follow-up album "Couples in Trouble" was released two weeks before 9/11. Any momentum the album had was halted after the tragic events.
Fulks returned to his traditional country roots for his latest project "Georgia Hard," which was originally titled "Reality Country" until "somebody pointed out to me that it was a really dumb title," said Fulks. "And then everybody else said, 'Oh yeah, we all thought so too but were too scared to tell you.'"
While its title may have been questioned, the results are sparkling with Fulks' barebones approach taking listeners back to a time before Nash Vegas, when country music was funny, quirky, rude and soulful.
Recorded in Nashville, the 15-track album was tantamount to a fantasy recording session, allowing Fulks to not only write musical parts with influential musicians in mind but to bring them into the studio. Legends such as Grand Ole Opry player Lloyd Green (pedal steel/dobro) and musical visionary Sam Bush (mandolin) give "Georgia Hard" certain credibility, allowing Fulks' vision to come to fruition.
When asked if bringing in such influential players to perform on his album was excessive, Fulks answers by comparing himself to one of today's alt country stars.
"I guess it is self-indulgent but not as self-indulgent as writing a song in five minutes on a piece of yellow legal pad in your hotel room and immediately committing it to tape and making a double record out of it the way Ryan Adams does," Fulks said. "I think that's more like self-indulgent."