There’s an old Maine joke told from the perspective of an aging carpenter, who looks back on his life from the barstool of his favorite watering hole. In a discussion with his friend, he laments the fact that his local reputation isn’t based on his sturdy craftsmanship, but rather it is based on the sordid fact that he was intimate with a pig. This joke is actually quite funny when told, I assure you, especially when delivered in a thick caricature of Maine’s dialect. (If you’re curious, or simply need to reinforce your arsenal of drunken party banter, please write me for a full transcript of said joke, officially entitled “The Tragedy of John Whiplah”. Of course, whether you get a laugh depends entirely on your skills of comic timing and cadence, Rickles.)
Dirty and/or immature implications aside (and with absolutely no offense intended), Robbie Fulks is, metaphorically speaking, that carpenter. He’s one of our most consistent and clever songwriters, but is repeatedly undervalued and passed over by tastemakers and music fans alike because he’s a country artist. That seven-letter word — “country” — drives otherwise “open-minded” music fans to a heightened state of ridicule and contempt; they can handle the tepidly twanged “alternative country” movement, which includes a pedal steel here or mandolin there, but reject true country with extreme prejudice. (Fulks presciently immortalized this in the lead-off track to his 1996 debut Country Love Songs, the Tim Carroll song “Every Kind of Music But Country”.) It’s doubly confusing and unfortunate, then, that Fulks is not more regularly revered, for his last two albums of original material — 1998’s vastly underrated Let’s Kill Saturday Night and 2001’s song cycle Couples in Trouble — strayed from his ’50s honky-tonk template to embrace rock, folk, soul, and chamber pop.
The contemporary country music establishment hasn’t exactly cuddled up to Fulks, either. Refusing to cater to the pop schlock meat market that is the Nashville of today, Fulks instead looks to classical/traditional country music for creative inspiration. (Immortalization #2: “Fuck This Town”, from South Mouth (1997), an achingly funny kiss-off to Music City that served not only as his walking papers, but probably a lifetime ban.) He seems to be an outsider on both sides of the fence, which while exasperating, allows him to go in any direction of his choosing without considering some expansive fanbase. His latest record appears to be simple enough, but it’s really two-sidedly defiant: a little too country for the “alt” crowd and…well, a little too country for Nashville, too.
So while Georgia Hard is yet another stellar addition to Fulks’s already impressive catalog, chances are that personal biases will once again prevent his advancement in the pantheon of contemporary songwriters. Which is a damn shame, for Georgia Hard is a sensational songwriter’s record, a swift mix of pathos and wit, where every lyrical and vocal nuance is essential to the bigger picture. It’s his first all-country record since South Mouth, and also his most slickly commercial (reportedly inspired by country music of the ’70s); like South Mouth, Georgia Hard‘s narratives fluctuate between soberly introspective and humorously irreverent. Like all great country songwriters, Fulks’s trademark is a manipulation of language: by rearranging the meanings of simple phrases, cracking a whiplash of wordplay, and carefully arranging rhymes within rhymes, he effectively demonstrates that no other conceivable structure would serve the song so well. When the dust settles on 2005, you may not be able to find a more intricate and perceptive example of intelligent songwriting.
Georgia Hard is populated with a number of airtight genre exercises that speak to the breadth of Fulks’s talent. “Where There’s a Road”, an escapist’s travelogue full of hotels, pawn shops, and stretches of pavement, is country-pop with a big, spit-shined hook — the kind of surefire single country radio would embrace if country radio didn’t keep its head in the sand. Lined with lush ’70s AM strings, “Leave It to a Loser” is a vintage George Jones weeper, complete with loathsome self-deprecation: “Leave it to a loser / To fall from an angel’s wings / To let go of all the things that held him off the ground”. The guilt-ridden “All You Can Cheat” wearily documents infidelities in cheap hotels (“Those lights once spelled a word / It wasn’t ‘Hilton'”), a pedal steel-swamped slice of Loretta Lynn countrypolitan. “Each Night I Try” harkens back to earlier decades à la the South Mouth style, throwing an excessively depressive spin on an old country music stereotype: “Each night I try most anything that’ll open up and pour / But each night I fail to hit the heartache I was aiming for”. As a vocalist, Fulks fully lives in each line, delivering it for maximum effect; he’s never been more charismatically assured or chameleonic on record before.
Things aren’t always what they initially seem in Fulks’s songs; like Randy Newman, his characteristic strength involves a slow subversion of a song’s simple refrain or theme, sometimes to devastating results. The most impressive example of this is “If They Could Only See Me Now”, a spare acoustic ballad that shifts from an everyday lament of acceptance to a haunting, desperate confession of murder. By recycling the title refrain over the course of the song’s moral descent, Fulks delivers an unexpected emotional blow. Our perception of the narrator, along with the intention of the title phrase, is pulled out from under our feet. “Coldwater, Tennessee”, which is equal parts country folk and ’70s Fleetwood Mac, wrings a similar reaction by twisting its original setup. The song’s narrative follows a small town songwriter who leaves his family behind to strike rich in Nashville; although the song’s mood is ominous throughout, the overall tone graduates from modest to tragic through a reevaluation of what the town of Coldwater means: first, the sustainer of a meager life, and finally, the silencer of a successful one.
Georgia Hard is not without Fulks’s endearing offshoots into disarmingly humorous fare. The barnburner “Countrier Than Thou” is a snarky jab at rubberneckers and slummers (from Shania scoffers to President Tex himself), specifically the snobbery they emit. It’s a veritable update on “Every Kind of Music But Country”, this time confronting the other side of the coin. “Some people just don’t understand it / If you come from where the kudzu grows / They think the South is like a planet / Of peckerwoods and bozos,” Fulks sneers alongside the scalding instrumental accompaniment, adding: “You weren’t raised in a shack so you’d better not act / So countrier than thou”. The narrator of “It’s Always Raining Somewhere”, an acoustic-driven strummer with a Bill Black-esque clacking bass rhythm, bids his mean-spirited lover farewell with deliciously caustic nuggets: “I’ll admit your four-star temper turned me on / But into each life must fall a little sunshine”. The most exaggerated example of the record’s humor is “I’m Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)”, a jaunty tune in which Fulks plays a hiccup-addled drunken buffoon hitting on his own wife at a bar (Fulks’s wife Donna provides the duet vocal).
Georgia Hard marks the end of a four-year silence from Fulks, and once again provides ample proof of his domination over the country format after the experimentations exhibited on Let’s Kill Saturday Night and Couples in Trouble. In addition to producing last year’s Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck, he had been reportedly working on a Michael Jackson tribute record, but decided to shelve the project in light of recent legal events. While the Jackson tribute would have most certainly been a cheeky treat, it’s important that Fulks be recognized for the construction of his own creative legacy, and not be undermined by a side project that could easily (and incorrectly) redefine him as shticky cross-examiner of irony. With Georgia Hard, Fulks has constructed another fine body of song, borne of calloused wit and heartache, tools at the ready in a leather belt. Just look at it: that’s the work of a carpenter.