First time here? Let me introduce myself.
Hi, I'm Robbie Fulks and this is my website. I play and write music, mostly country of one stripe or another. I think you knew that if you came here, but if you're unfamiliar, click below to hear and see examples of my style. Otherwise click around as you please and let the magic that is me enfeeble your defenses.
Check out some songs
|(I Love) Nickels and Dimes|
|Mad At A Girl|
|Countrier Than Thou|
Here's a cool performance of "Cigarette State" from Youtube.
Couple things happening with me at present:
Foo Fighter Promo Ballyhoo. While the Fighters were in town for a show, their guitarist, Chris Shiflett, interviewed me for his podcast at the Bloodshot office. You just never know what strange thing is going to happen next; Mr. Shiflett is a country music devotee, and knows his stuff. We talked about such matters as Redd Volkaert, Steve Albini, and my fateful fork in the career road back in the early 1990s, between Bloodshot Records and Music City USA. I'll post more info on how to hear it, when it comes to me.
Andrew Bird Co-Chair Plastic Single Dance Delirium. Bloodshot, the concern just mentioned, is fixing to release a spiffy looking 45-RPM record of Andrew Bird covering me ("I'll Trade You Money for Wine") and, on the other side, me covering Andrew ("Core and Rind"). Nora O'Connor sings on both, a fantastic coincidence. I can't honestly vouch for how good my track is, but Andrew's cover of me is a real success -- you can hear it on Time.com, where it's streaming free right now.
Bonkers Lifelong Tour Soldiers On. I won't be at the Hideout on the coming Monday, but I will be various other places the next several days: Asheville, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, District of Columbia...does it go on all the way down the alphabet? Doubt it, but check the tour sidebar and see! I'll be quartet: Robbie Gjersoe, Shad Cobb, and the mighty Todd Phillips. I've listened to and loved Todd's playing since I was 13, and am thrilled to share the stage with him. Come on out and see how instruments sound played into mikes.
Jon Langford, Sally Timms, and I present a slideshow of our recent trip to Scotland. Anecdotes shall accompany visual stimuli, and musical selections will be interspersed as deemed appropriate.
I had been in Scotland for two days when I started seeing “yes” stickers in apartment windows and on car bumpers and streetlamps. I asked our driver, a proud Scotsman engorged with fifteen centuries of esoteric Scottish military history, a merrie portly sexagenerian with an enormous feather jutting backward from his hatband at all hours, what it was all about. After he had reminded me that the independence referendum was a month away, and clarified that the angels were all solidly lined up on one side of the question, I asked him to describe the opposing view.
“Some people,” he explained, with a little sorrow, “are afraid of change. Fearful. ‘Tis the long and the short.”
“What’s the other team’s slogan?” I inquired. “No?”
He grimaced. “Better together,” he said, in the way Anita Bryant might say up the anus, or Donald Sterling jungle fever.
During my two weeks there, I talked about independence with many people, in bars mostly. They talked, rather. It was on everyone’s mind. When someone asked me if the upcoming vote was exciting much discussion in America, I had to deliver the disappointing news. They weren’t very surprised. People in Europe have a dislodgeable view of America, one that seems to be based on Fox News and old Western serials. All right, gun homicide statistics as well, it’s not all fanciful. They are happy to think of Americans as slack-witted apes, and that Sally Timms and I, two very bright and evolved specimens, are standing right before them, will neither weaken the prejudice nor soften its expression. My own prejudicial view of the Scot national character is that it is two-sided -- forthright and nonsense-intolerant, but with a soft spot for serious trouble. I submit the three pillars of the Scottish economy: financial services, oil, whiskey. While I was there, I personally saw little of petroleum and less of money. The thing I saw the very least of, though, was “no” voters. They were like the ghostly Nixon enthusiasts of 1972.
The trip was plotted a little sadistically, I thought. One day we went down the west coast, to get a ferry -- more exactly, a “rigid inflatable” -- to play music on an island, Jura, that was accessible only by these cursed rigid things. Upon leaving, we went straight back up, to the Isle of Skye. It was a beautiful August day and our feather-clad driver pointed out the Five Sisters of Kintail, the ridge on which the battle of Glen Shiel was fought in 1719 between Britain and Spain, with some local clansmen assisting both sides. I’d tell you more, but you’re American so it wouldn’t interest you. The driver knew about every drop of blood spilled on every hillside in west Scotland since the 4th cent. A.D. He said almost all of his knowledge came from a single book, a definitive 19th-cent. work which authoritatively compiled over a millennium’s lore. Privately I thought that in America such a book wouldn’t last an hour in any university history department without being savagely denuded, deconstructed, and shamed.
Another day we crossed the North Sea, choppy and wine-dark that day, and many in our number were, or looked, ill. One night while we slept in a single room in a youth hostel, the driver dozed in the car in a nearby lot. By day there were nine of us squeezed with our instruments and bottles and sundry goods in a van, a squarish EU-dimensioned contraption midway in acreage between an American 15-passenger and a medium SUV. Our journey, though, might have been CEO-grade compared to a few intrepid fans who followed us town to town on public transport. One young man, Jack, I befriended easily. He was a four-eyed math major from Cambridge, lugging a backpack of books by Ruth Ozeki and David Sedaris. We’d show up at a venues on a remote speck of land, hundreds of one-lane-road miles from the last, and there would be Jack, waiting for us, fresh off the bus. He bore his privations with British fortitude. I complained, lavishly.
A feature of Scottish rural life I took great exception to was the roads. They are one lane’s width -- scarcely -- and to take a winding curve on a steep hillside at 55 kph, as our patriotic and possibly dotty driver was prone to do, struck me as stomach-churning folly. The method when coming suddenly to an oncoming vehicle is for both drivers to hit the brakes hard and stare at each other, chicken-style, until one backs slowly up, back down the road as far as necessary until coming to a wide spot. I was generally the middle guy in the first bench seat back, and I was heartened that mine would likely not be the first body thrown through the glass and into the air, but that was the happiest thought I could gin up. Behind me was the perpetually amusing man called Lu, short for “Lunatic,” who, I was to find out later, was formerly in the seminal punk group The Damned, and was currently in John Lydon’s band, Public Image Limited. But literally currently, in the van. “Goddam it, Lu,” I said softly and tersely. “This guy doesn’t know what’s around these curves he’s whipping around any better than we do, he’s just used to driving on these roads. I mean, probabilistically speaking....” But Lu was sleeping. He was dreaming about his children in faraway Siberia.
The other people in this band, the Mekons, were also weird. The instruments they played were: acoustic plugged-in guitar, electric saz, violin, accordion, and unplugged-in banjolele. It was like a dogged investigation into a narrow frequency range. Lu was the sazist, and he had a fondness for an effect that sounded like Shaft fucking a whore, whonka-whonka-whonka, an effect, which, needless to say, is incongruent with Turkish tradition. Susie, the violinist, who was very thin, dignified, and beautiful, found the Shaft sound dreadful, and spent many soundchecks shuddering and glowering; during the first week she directed a lot of loud disapproval Lu’s way, as though he was being willfully immature and needed only a woman’s wagging finger to stop making the Shaft whore-fucking sound, but by the second week she relented -- it was one more lost Scottish cause. Lu genuinely liked the sazploitation sound. I liked it as well.
On the isle of Jura there are 200 people, many more sheep, many many more bottles of whiskey, and some number beyond fathoming of rocks and trees and clods of dirt. Inversely, on the not-to-be-found-on-Jura roster, are: clothes dryers, showers, soap, coffee, and toilet paper. At least this described our cabin, the one where Jon, Eric, and I were housed. “How will I dry my clothes?” I whined to our host. My trip was five weeks long, and I had timed the clothes-washing opportunities with Swiss precision.
“This is not America, but Jura,” she reminded me primly. “We do not use dryers here. But our clotheslines seem to work to everyone’s satisfaction.” They didn’t to mine. The weather on Jura, it turns out, is one hour of howling wind followed by two hours of howling rain. By the end of the second day of our three on the island, my clothes were much wetter than when they had come out of the washer. The wind, in a delirious frenzy, had whipped one-third of them off the line and scattered them across the adjoining pasture. My laundry troubles had by then become a comical leitmotif for the rest of the band, who were laughing openly at me, and pointing at the fumes coming off my person. After a couple soapless baths and four days in the same under- and outerwear, I was feeling itchy all over, notably in the rectum.
“My asshole,” I complained one evening to my dear friend Jon Langford, “feels like it’s been usurped by a cotillion of red ants. I can’t go this long without bathing, I’m too pampered by U.S. indulgences. I feel rotten. I need to wash up. To my scandalously naive American mind, this means: water coming in jets from above, with soap in a dish on the side.”
“Robbie’s asshole,” Jon announced treacherously to the group at dinner an hour later, “is hosting a tribe of ants, he says.” Possibly awed at the literary quality of the description, the diners declined, for once, to laugh. Jon, though, could and did laugh at almost anything that happened. If the event wasn’t inherently humorous, he alchemized it into verbal comedy, repeatedly. For instance, at our show in Dundee many days later, during a slack moment between musical selections in our set (there were many!) he improvised a tale about the Scottish isle whose inhabitants were famous for having blown up the “World War I soap boats.” He spun the dross of misery into the gold of amazing stage patter. And his determination to lighten rooms wasn’t restricted to the stage. If he saw you start to frown a bit and stare dejectedly out the window at the passing rocks, he’d actually lean right into your face and say funny things until you smiled. I’ve liked him for many years, but after traveling extensively with him, I was head over heels smitten with the guy.
Susie’s launching one afternoon into a discussion of the Robert Burns poem, “Cock Up Your Beaver,” was not the kind of thing Jon was apt to pass by in silence. “Pardon me,” he said, leaning forward from the back of the van. “Did you just say, ‘Cock up your beaver?’”
Susie tut-tutted. “It’s not a dirty poem,” she said. (Let me say, you have to imagine, not just a pretty woman reproving you for thinking cock up your beaver is a suggestive phrase, but reproving you in an educated London accent.) “It’s not about sex, Jon.”
“It’s not?” Jon said incredulously. “What’s it? A recipe?”
“The beaver, if you must know, is a kind of hat, and Burns was satirizing the ignorant lads from the highlands who move to the city and demonstrate their urbanity by cocking their brims. It’s a very famous poem.”
Jon, who was three sheets to the wind, it being 1:30 P.M., began improvising raucously. “Cock up your beaver/Cock up your beaver/Cock up your beaver/It’s New Year’s Eve,” he sang, as the too-small van careened around a narrow pass.
Although the other musicians weren’t as funny as Jon, they were all funny enough, and more to the point, we all, Americans and Brits alike, met on the field of comedy -- subgenre, British. The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, Python, Ealing, Flanders and Swann, George Formby, and Derek and Clive are fairly sacred names to me; a strong affection for these entertainers/entertainments glued me to the Mekons more than anything else. Also we all liked whiskey. Maybe you’ve heard the long joke with the cowboy and the lesbian at the bar, where the lesbian tells the cowboy in great detail what she does as a lesbian, and then asks the cowboy what he does. He replies uncertainly, “I thought I was a cowboy....” Well, I thought I was a drunk. Then I met the Mekons. Their drunkenness approached the heroic, the hard-to-believe, a drunkenness as sky-reaching as the drifts of snow in nineteenth-century snow disaster stories, or green groaning piles of turtles in Dr. Seuss. No day trip was so tight that multiple pub stops, starting about noon, couldn’t be shoehorned in. No night ended without jugs of peaty brown swill upended, and no night ended as early as it decently should have. There was staggering, backslapping, laughing into tears, bobble-headed nods into unconsciousness, loss of motor function, and out-of-doors vomiting. But that was all me; the Mekons were so at one with liquor that, with a couple notable and unbloggable exceptions, no amount of it changed them.
On Orkney, post-show, I slipped into one hotel bar while the rest oozed into another. It was here that I met the one person I was able to find in all of Scotland that seemed to have considered independence with some dispassion. He was a chemical geologist and was sitting in the bar with his wife and sister-in-law. “When you look at countries like Norway, they clearly thrive after gaining their independence,” he said. “I’m British-born and do have some sentimental feelings for union, but I think it should ultimately be decided on the basis of what’s best for Scotland, which is, I’m convinced, to manage its own affairs. She” -- indicating his wife -- “is more pro-union, on the other hand.” But she, typical No, wasn’t talking.
The only talking Nos I did hear from were either British or British-born. One lady, born in Glasgow but a Londoner of many decades’ residence, confided that she thought Scotland would be acting foolishly, rashly, and indeed ungratefully to cut loose of England after having been bailed out in the 2008 crisis. Another man from London, though outraged by what he considered veiled threats from Cameron as the 18th of September loomed, and though sympathetic to the aspirations of small nations, pointed to the implausibility of Scotland’s participating in giant transnational bodies like the EU and the IMF, and of its banishing so many nuclear submarines to the south of England -- he too thought this so much arrant foolishness. On the tiny island of Hoy, in the Orkneys, I overnighted at the home of a man British-born but identifying emotionally with Scotland. He was a Yes man, but riven. Opinions on the issue lined up so neatly with national point of origin, even among the highly educated, that whatever polemics I heard for either case began to strike me as a little suspect. There was a steady drone warning of dire consequences for an independent Scotland -- and all of it was coming from the British! However, I wasn’t getting a reliable sample, because I was fraternizing with so many goofball bohemians. Only one chemical geologist.
On our trip from Hoy to Strathpeffer, one grey and rainy day, we were passing through a quiet northern village when Sally cried, “Pub!” Rubber screeched, and presto, we were entering its Stygian chambers. But we had made a mistake. I don’t know just what Sally said to the barkeep, but he and the locals were instantly disenchanted with our arty crew of bogus ruffians. “Go, go, this is not good, go,” Sally urged us quietly through clenched teeth as she turned to the door. A few of us, me included, moved quickly to the parked van outside. But two had gone somewhere to buy whiskey or food or something, and another two were off to another tavern. These Mekons were like bloodhounds for drink. One of those now missing had the van key, and the rain was coming hard. I had brought a jacket on the trip but had left it at someone’s house along the way. My shaving kit, a notebook of charts, Jonathan Richman’s phone number on a scrap of paper, and a check for $348 were also at mislaid like fairytale bread crumbs at a string of locations behind me. I was wearing Sally’s boyfriend’s smallish sweater, and it was getting seriously damp; but after two weeks in Scotland, you hardly notice that. All of a sudden there was a violent noise behind me -- a citizen of the bar, thick-lobed, livid, was banging the pavement and shouting, “Hey! Get this van out of here, now!” A brawl was imminent -- exciting! Eric, the accordionist, made off down the street to try to find driver and key. He was moving fast but not running, and the local bellowed at him thunderously. It was all shaping up like one of those medieval skirmishes on which the Scots are so well-read.
It took longer than it should have, and seemed longer yet, but at last our party was rounded up and we pulled away, all feeling like weak-limbed aesthetes suddenly and rudely thrust into the bleak unyielding heart of reality -- David Copperfield in the wine bottling plant. I felt like that, at least. As we pulled out, I issued a valedictory cry of “Better together!” through the open window at the locals, pitching it so that they probably couldn’t hear it, but timing it so that our rate of acceleration would save our hides if they did. Sally shook her head grimly. “The ugly side of Scotland,” she said softly to me. “I’m sorry you had to witness that.”
A nicer view was vouchsafed us on Orkney (“a byword for remoteness” -- Guardian), where we were welcomed by the distinguished essayist and playwright Duncan Maclean. Duncan set up a memorable, well-attended show for us in the town center, and also arranged for us to nose around the Ness of Brodgar excavation with Professor Mark Edmonds of the Univ. of York. The Neolithic temples and other dwellings there, discovered only a couple years ago, predate the pyramids and Stonehenge -- Edmonds said, as I remember, they went up between 3500 and 3900 B.C. I missed a lot of what he said because the wind there on the beach maintained a decibelage that must have put a severe crimp on early man’s capacity for light banter. I watched the good professor’s mouth move as we trudged around the burial tombs, tiny temples, and mysterious circles of narrow cylindrical stone that were the Neoliths’ version of our Thursday night TV viewing. Some of the spaces and entryways were dauntingly low and narrow, yet these strange humans were on average only an inch or two shorter than modern man, the archaeologist shouted over the gusts.
Twenty of the seventy islands in the Orkney archipelago were tenanted, although Hoy looked a toss-up. For sure the population did not include one person who knew how to run a P.A. At Hoy’s desolate ferry terminal, I picked up a brochure that included a helpful poetic mnemonic to help outsiders learn and distinguish among thirteen of the islands. It is a good example of the Scots’ pride in their local minutiae, and of other things too:
At catching fish I am so speedy/A big black scarfie from EDAY
If you want something with real good looks/You can’t go wrong with FLOTTA fleuks
There’s not quite such a wondrous thing/As a beautiful young GRAEMSAY gosling
To take the head off all their big talk/Just pay attention to the wise HOY hawk
All stand to the side and reveal/From far NORTH RONALDSAY, a seal
When feeling low or down in the dumps/Just bake some EGILSAY burstin lumps
You can say what you like, I don’t care/ For I’m a beautiful ROUSAY mare
I can always set the world on fire/Because I’m the greatest, a whelk from WYRE
I like my porridge fine and dandy/For I’m a gruellie belkie from SANDAY
Do not listen to that crusty creep/But hark to the voice of the SHAPINSAY sheep
If you want something to stick all day/Get yourself a limpet from fair STRONSAY
What’s the finest bird in any flock?/Have you heard of a WESTRAY auk?
Though you look for a month of Sundays/You’ll find naught like PAPA WESTRAY dundies
Well! If you can’t keep the Orkneys apart after that, you’re a hopeless case. How many of life’s fuzzily similar set members -- for instance, Americana acts -- could we easily commit to memory by following the anonymous bard’s slipshod technique?
If you like long grey hair, and pipes you might kill for/You can go much wronger than JIMMIE DALE GILMORE
Am I a slew of songs about a past wild and checkered?/Then I am JASON ISBELL’s new record!
If your TAYLOR I.Q. is really dreadful/Remember, JAMES has no hair, while CHIP has a headful
But you truly can’t tell a fart from a belch/If you mix up KEVIN and GILIAN WELCH
Who is as spry and frisky as a colt?/None of the members of SON VOLT
All who love harmonies piercing and unruly/Bow before BUDDY MILLER, and his freaky wife JULIE
What makes a noise that’s dire, yet awfully hard to hear?/ROBBIE FULKS’s career
Please cut the carbs by quite a bunch/If you are the one preparing JOHN MORELAND’s lunch
And speaking of cooks, one who does not look like death/Is the one they call ELIZABETH
To avoid sharing royalties with a girl/Don’t marry seven of them, like STEVE EARLE
Though no homosexual, I’d fancy a fling/With Bloodshot’s LUKE WINSLOW-KING
And if Luke casts me out like an unclean beggar/Then I’d gladly settle for LINDI ORTEGGER
I’m no old-timey maven/I once recoiled from MIKE CRAVER, thinking him WES CRAVEN
Which is why the nouveau old-timers call me Pops/My knowledge runs more to RED CLAY RAMBLERS than CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS
And, with the LUMINEERS/Completely disappears.
It's me and Jenny Scheinman. We'll play from her records and mine, and we'll probably do some tunes from the film we're working on, called Kannapolis. And as usual, country songs and fiddle music!
Dave Hoekstra's and Mark Guarino's obituaries are good starting places if you're unfamiliar with Springfield, Missouri's tall man of the bass guitar and recording console. However, it's inevitably a violation of tone to write a somberly respectful past-tense summation of a man who was so gregariously present-tense, so attuned to comic absurdity, so at odds with social pretense of any kind. Lou's wish not to be memorialized, expressed in the midst of his yearlong bout with cancer, was an example of his distaste for pomp. His positive influence on so many of us, through the force of his charming personality and his recording skills, as well as the fact that he's now dead and we're still here, are good reasons for dishonoring his wish. The list of terrific, unfussily presented, skillfully played, cosmically hip and rocking records that came out of his studio down in Springfield includes projects by Boxcar Willie, Syd Straw, Jonathan Richman, Bill Dees, Scott Kempner, Rudy Grayzell, Big Smith, Wilco, Eric Ambel, Mary McBride, Dallas Wayne, myself, and his own uniquely excellent band the Skeletons, a latter-day incarnation of an older uniquely excellent band, the Morells. I hope some of these guys can get together soon and make some music in Lou's memory.
Here in full is what I sent Mark Guarino, some of which was quoted in his Sun-Times piece today:
Lou was a killer, near-side-of-the-beat bassist, and, after the death of Jack Clement, was the last of the deeply funny recording engineer/philosophers of the Old World. His intelligence sparked and guided no fewer than three great American bands: the Symptoms, the Morells, and the Skeletons. He had a vast repertoire of funny, folksy-yet-slightly-surreal sayings: "I'm 52, but I read at a 54 level." Or: "I'm 52. I would have been 53 but I was sick a year." His being older than most of those who he played with and recorded, yet younger in spirit, gave him a sort of indomitability. He walked and worked and thought like a man in his 20s, almost to the end. I approached him to help me record some songs in 1995, and I never felt more instantly comfortable with any of my music heroes. During many recording sessions that followed, at his studio in Springfield, he kept me laughing and relaxed while working intensely late into the night. Nothing seemed to faze him, sickness or misfortune or possibly death itself. When I heard from Syd Straw last April that he was ill I sent him an email, and he replied: "Yup, I'm fighting the big fight. Americana vs. roots rock."
About his way of walking -- oddly, one of my most vivid memories of him -- I remember following behind Lou down the sidewalk with Dan Massey, who drummed for me in the Nineties, all of us strolling down Springfield's Main Street. "Look at the way he walks!" Dan urged. It was like a cocky athlete, or a celebrity too new to fame to have butted into its downside, or the "pimp roll" of young urban criminals described by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities. But Lou was more the opposite of any of these types -- a middle-aged, bald, intellectual (much as he would have disdained the word, he engaged joyfully and dextrously with ideas, and valued verbal wit above almost anything else), pot-smoking music nerd. (Still, he was in prime physical shape.) I remember trying to keep up with him on Lincoln Avenue, in 2003 when he kindly came to Chicago for my 40th birthday. Likewise, I remember his rangy, swivelling movements on stage, in Skeleton shows at the Elbo Room in the summer of 1991, at Lounge Ax with Jonathan Richman in...I think it was early that same year, because Lou announced "Incoming Scuds!" as the band stormed the stage and struck the first chord...
Lou was a strong champion of American ordinariness. Cheeseburgers, neat cars, wives in pants, honorable local merchants selling things you can touch with your hands, unionized labor, 4/4 time and blues-based changes, root for the underdog, nobody's better than anybody else. Music for dancing. Words for arguing, words for breaking everyone's self-seriousness. Sometimes he would regurgitate words that silly people used as status markers: "Check out my Lexus!" he'd announce over a break in a blues instrumental. Once I brought in a bouzouki to use on a track, and he couldn't stop mocking me for days on end, as though it was the equivalent of a Prada suit. "Oh, what is that marvelous sound on your track -- a bouzouki?" he'd say. Or, "Where is that mandol -- oh! I'm sorry -- I meant to say -- Bouzouki." "Lou," I protested, "it's not a snobbish fiction, it's a valid instrument." "Yes, of course," he'd agree. "I'd never stoop to ridicule anyone's...bouzouki."
And if you went into a thoughtful discourse on what goals you were striving for in your final mix, as I made the error of doing in 1997, working with him on South Mouth, he'd sigh and respond, in a patient professorial manner: "Here at the Studio, we have a saying. Mixing is a factor." Seventeen years of mix sessions later, I think the best lessons you can extrapolate from that statement -- that mixing is a subordinate art form, that a mix may sharpen or improve but not redeem a performance, that it's unwise to have too dogmatic or exact a mental picture of a mix at its outset, that singers lacking studio experience should sit at mixdown and observe quietly more than they should expound and direct -- are valuable and true.
Lou introduced me to Tom Brumley in 1995. Of course I knew Tom had played on Jonathan Goes Country and that he lived in Branson nearby, and I asked Lou to recommend a pedal steel guy for some tracks, hoping he'd say the thing he did say. "When it comes to pedal steel, there's one guy. Tom Brumley. Then there's nobody. Then there's every other pedal steel player. Do you want me to see if Tom's available?" I was over the moon. In all, we worked with Tom on three separate occasions, and the sessions all ended the same way. We sat in Lou's lobby, and let Tom talk to us. Which he did, for close to an hour. When he left, we'd talk quietly, Lou and I, about the fact that Tom Brumley had just sat in the room talking to us. No degree of personal acquaintance and no passing of years could dim the luster, it was always like Babe Ruth and the sick kid. Lou would begin to reminisce about Buck Owens shows he'd seen in the 1960s in Arizona, and he'd get misty. "That band had a formula they never deviated from. Shuffle, straight-8 rocker, ballad. It was a formula, and it worked." Bands that transmitted uncomplicated happiness and made the dancing happen, acts like the Buckaroos and Bo Diddley and Bill Deal & the Rhondels, were sacred to Lou, and bands like Led Zeppelin or Radiohead, bands with messages to deliver and mixes to obsess over, I don't think he could have cared any less about. He was passionate about a gamut that ran from the ordinary to the transcendental ordinary. If your music included Greek folk instruments or your lyrics referred to Herman Hesse, he was out.
In 1982, Rolling Stone, then the most powerful print tastemaker in the popular music world, led its record review section with a 4-star review of Shake and Push by the Morells. It sent me straight to the record store, and thereby introduced me to Lou's idealized midwestern planet of drive-ins and girlfriends and surf instrumentals and equal-opportunity mockery of both hillbillies and the urban haute bourgeoisie. I was hooked! As immune as Lou was to smart-set approval, I believe the review and the success that followed were a high watermark in Lou's life. Lou and the band went national at this point, and people who were at the Morells shows of that era (sadly, not me) still speak in awe of the wild rightness of the quartet. Music writers compare the Morells to NRBQ with boring frequency; the stock descriptions of NRBQ ("best bar band in the world") that omit to mention that band's avant-garde passions and 1950s black jazz inputs are much more descriptive of the Morells than NRBQ.
From this time forward, Lou was a made man, the sage of Springfield, the grand old man of no-frills roots-rock recording. ("A bucketful of E notes," he hilariously said to me of one record he produced.) All of us in America and beyond who loved the tradition that went from Chuck Berry (to take a sort-of-random starting point) onto to Arthur Alexander, Carole King, Otis Redding, the 'Q, John Sebastian, Bruce Springsteen, Joey Ramone, Tom Petty...you know, the guys who were good at putting catchy witty words about modern living in grungy old America to rocking R&B music forms ...all of us knew that Lou occupied a solid niche in that legacy, and that we could drive anytime to Springfield and get a good rate at the Best Western on Route 66 and make a nice affordable record with him at the helm, backed perhaps by the omnitalented Skeletons. This you could not do with the Beatles or Otis Redding. Lou stayed local. Springfield was in his blood. In L.A. the drive-ins and wives with pants were in some way conceptual; in Springfield, they were just a grim part of nature.
"Conceptual" was in fact anathema to Lou. When I was being treated roughly by my big corporate label, I called Lou to vent. (I often did.) "You have to explain to them that you're an act," he said, hotly. "Do they understand that, do you think? You're an act -- not a concept." A little later, when that record was released, my own Rolling Stone review was less than four-star. It was a disembowelment, ending with a stern sentence referring to the producer of my previous record: "Bring back Lou Whitney!" He called me the week it appeared. "I just want you to know," he said with great emotion, "that even in some hidden chamber of my heart, I do not take pleasure in this. It shriveled me, to read this. It took pride away from me, rather than giving it." Tears are springing to my eyes, writing what he said, these many years later. The whiskey, maybe. Finally, I was given my walking papers by the company, and once again found myself on the phone with Lou. "Do you realize," he said, "that in 20 years, you'll still be out there making music, while they --" the staff of Interscope, he meant -- "will have KFC franchises?"
Music is one more foul shithole of an industry, all in all, no better, no more ethical, and certainly no more glamorous than shoe repair, public accounting, or pornography. You are treated in precise accordance with your perceived value as an economic unit, and your past contributions are not esteemed. I didn't mean to end my appreciation of my friend's life on such a sour note, but that's where I leave him, standing against the foul tides there in his small shop on Main Street in Springfield, doing his best for band after band day after day for a modest rate, honoring the high performers in his field regardless of how their stock in the greater world might rise or fall, lifting your spirits on the phone.