[5 November 2001]
The year is 2047. (Work with me.) Robbie Fulks has recently been checked into the Ryan Adams Memorial Retirement Home, which has been erected from its namesake’s slush fund to house ailing, retired alternative country musicians who gained respect and admiration throughout their careers, but who met with little financial success. It is a high-rise facility—double-booked, double-occupancy rooms with bunk beds.
Recently, while proposing new song ideas to his unamused roommates, Robbie received in the mail a recording by a lively, witty, boyish-looking singer-songwriter. It appeared to be a tribute project of some sort. He’d heard of the singer before—one of those tenth-wave troubadour types with a pretty solid reputation and a respectable cult following. It didn’t surprise him when he couldn’t come up with any songs he’d actually heard by the young man. But upon perusing the track listing on the recording, he was pleased to see included a cover of his anti-Nashville rave-up “Fuck This Town”. He belatedly toasted his youthful cantankerousness by clinking Pepto shot glasses with cronies Alejandro Escovedo (still kicking!) and Richard Buckner (long out of ideas).
Upon closer inspection, he gleaned that the intent of the record was to highlight the songs of some underappreciated or unheard-of old-time alternative country artists. A pretty nice idea, he thought, but he couldn’t help wondering what good, if any, could come of such an undertaking. However, if by some fluke it garners interest in some of the songwriters paid homage to, then maybe a royalty check would someday roll into the retirement home and be used to fund the year-end Christmas hoe-down. Realistically though, Robbie knew deep down that he wouldn’t see a dime from the project, as the record would be lucky to sell even 5,000 copies. You see, Robbie once tried exactly the same ruse many years earlier (2001 to be exact) with a record respectfully titled 13 Hillbilly Giants. (On Chicago’s now-legendary Bloodshot Records.)
Ah yes, Robbie fondly remembered the song selection process for the material that eventually comprised 13 Hillbilly Giants—primarily because the showcased artists and songs are as near and dear to his heart now as they were then. The music was timeless, after all. Just as his own career uncooperatively eluded mass acceptance from country music fans and eventually branched out to new stylistic directions, the artists on his tribute record followed similar paths. Names like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and Conway Twitty were nowhere to be found on Robbie’s collection. In their place were “giants” like Benny Miller, Dave Rich, Jimmy Arnold, and Jimmy Murphy. Artists who, in their place and time (mostly Nashville, circa the 1950s and ‘60s), were either significantly influential or moderately, but not overwhelmingly, successful. Please don’t tell fans of Wynn Stewart, Jean Shepard, and Bill Anderson to their faces that their idols are unknowns or you’ll risk getting an arsenic-laced plate of biscuits ‘n’ gravy the next time you’re in Nashville. They most definitely aren’t obscure to those with a bachelor of bluegrass arts and country music sciences degree, but they aren’t household names to the rest of the Garth Brooks-loving populace, either.
13 Hillbilly Giants was loaded with nifty little lost nuggets and all were given the now-patented Fulks treatment. He was amazingly comfortable in roles as the cynical observationalist, the tenderhearted balladeer, the thoughtful storyteller, and often the unabashed goofball. The songs he chose to highlight followed that formula in precisely equal proportions. Bill Anderson’s “Cocktails” was a familiar lament about the bottle and the damage done (they tore up his family!). Jimmie Logsdon’s “I Want to Be Mama’d” found Robbie literally whining like a baby (to annoying effect, appropriately and unfortunately). Dave Rich’s simmering should’ve-been-recorded-by-Elvis gem “Burn on Love Fire” was the coolest find in the bunch, by a mile. And, although time has healed the wound, it’s still hard to forgive Fulks for wasting space on a generic Chuck Berry-styled number like “Lotta Lotta Women”. However, including, in apparent violation of the record’s announced principles, the Dolly Parton/Porter Wagoner weeper “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” certainly made it easier. The song was a touch schmaltzy, to be sure, but Fulks brought it to us so straight and tender that you couldn’t help but drip a tear in your beer as the song wound up to its inevitable tragic end. Poor little Jeannie. Why did they have to kill her off like that?
Robbie’s record, nearly 50 years later, ended up being a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. In essence, he was paying tribute to himself when he made 13 Hillbilly Giants, but maybe he didn’t realize it at the time. Knowing Robbie, he probably did, though. He’s a clever son of a bitch. But who cares, really. His prolific yet unheralded career deserves tribute now, just as those he heralded then merited a second look. Life has never been fair to those on the fringe. Robbie knew that back in 2001 when he decided to put out such an impossible-to-market record, and he surely knows it now. I suppose that’s the lot in life chosen by those who opt for the unglamorous title of alternative country giant.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/fulksrobbie-13/