In addition to being a bona fide singing, picking, writing and band-leading quadruple threat, Robbie Fulks deserves the lofty title of entertainer. Based on those credentials, and taking into account the era of country music that he celebrates so skillfully on his new Georgia Hard, if this were 1973 it'd be easy to imagine Fulks hosting his own weekly variety show. Or at least getting a Christmas special on which he, dressed in a nice cardigan, serves up Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains" and a country-flavored "Winter Wonderland" in front of a crackling fire.
By design the songs on Georgia Hard, all Fulks originals, conjure thoughts and images of that gone-but-not-forgotten period of country music, a time of not only variety shows and Roger Miller but also creeping suburban malaise and songs as full of genuine human drama as they were nimble wordplay. (Lest we be accused of rose-colored revisionism, it's worth noting that country music in the '70s was far from perfect.) "To me, country music traditionally has something that it's done very well: tell universal stories of common travails and joys and all the other mundane things along the way," says Fulks on the phone from his Chicago home. "But I think country music has abandoned that, and I think hip hop covers that more than any other modern popular music. Country has turned into this kind of feel-good wallpaper over the last 10 or 15 years."
In an attempt to strip the walls and reveal that universality, Fulks, who spent his high school years in central North Carolina, has turned the musical dial back a good 25 or 30 years. "With the '70s mode that I'm using on this record, it did twist me in those more personal directions," he explains. "When it was the '70s, I was at my most impressionable. I was a kid learning about music."
The result is a collection of songs about real people struggling with real problems. The bar-set "You Don't Want What I Have" presents a truthful twist on the grass is always greener theme, and "Doin' Right (For All the Wrong Reasons)" features a husband with ulterior motives for staying true to his wife. Meanwhile, the protagonist of "All You Can Cheat" struggles with his adulterous addiction. But Fulks also knows how to balance moods. There's a body count (a deserting father and a cheating spouse both meet their maker), but there are also light moments courtesy of "Goodbye, Cruel Girl" and Georgia Hard's lively and accusatory centerpiece "Countrier Than Thou." Fulks' work on last year's Johnny Paycheck tribute album Touch My Heart--he produced, contributed a duet with Gail Davies, and oversaw a house band that was the very definition of distinguished vets" (pedal steel legend Lloyd Green and guitarist Redd Volkaert among others)--was clearly an inspiration, and he jumped at the chance to work with the same core group of musicians on his record. "The music that comes out is natural and kind of genetic, in the sense that it's not chart reading; it's just kind of 'lived' music," says Fulks. "For me, it was an uplifting and eye-opening experience, and I couldn't wait to go write songs and cast those guys, so to speak, in the songs." Thus, Green's pedal steel and Hank Singer's fiddle co-star all over Georgia Hard alongside Fulks' nifty acoustic guitar work, and there are cameos from the likes of keyboardist Joe Terry, banjoist Alison Brown and mandolinist Sam Bush.
Georgia Hard is a pure country record, but anybody who has followed Fulks' career across six previous albums or seen his live show knows that templates get smashed from record to record, sometimes even from show to show. He writes pop songs on par with Marshall Crenshaw and Matthew Sweet, and he can move from a honky-tonking original to a cover of Michael Jackson or Emerson, Lake and Palmer without breaking stride. (An album of Jackson songs remains on the shelf due to Jackson's notoriety.) He'll even belt an irony-free version of Cher's "Believe" that will weaken your knees. The guy's an entertainer.
Robbie Fulks plays The Pour House on Sunday, June 5. The music starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.