By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

October 23, 2003

No, he's not kidding. Robbie Fulks' next CD will be titled "Dear Michael, Love Robbie" - an album's worth of Michael Jackson songs.

"It's a weird record," he allows, speaking recently by phone from the side of a road in Arlington, Va., waiting for his car to be fixed. "It's a collection of Michael Jackson covers, but it's not what you'd really call a tribute album. It's his songs, using them as a taking-off point for various musical ideas.

"Some songs are close to the originals, but others are almost unrecognizable, compared to the sources."

The Chicago-based Fulks, 40, was part of a Grammy-nominated bluegrass band, the Special Consensus, in 1989. Since then, he has built a solo career just a bit off-center, even for the independent-minded alt-country scene. He's taken a shot at the genre that welcomed him with songs such as "Roots Rock Weirdos," and he's penned a love song to "That Bangle Girl."

But the germ of the Michael Jackson idea sprouted three or four years ago when Fulks was asked to perform at a club in Chicago that puts on birthday tribute shows.

"I had a good time working up and arranging the songs," he says. "I started doing 'Billie Jean' in my own shows, and the response was really good. It seemed like an interesting thing to do.

"Some of the songs play against perceptions, in that they're really well-known. Others just acknowledge the musical gifts of Michael Jackson. And others are totally unrelated - except that they came from his records."

Even though the Jackson songs will be on his next CD in the spring, Fulks and his band - drummer Gerald Dowd, guitarist Grant Tye and bassist Mike Fredrickson - probably won't be salting the show with them Friday night at Off Broadway.

"We've been doing them a lot in the last two years, so we've been taking a break from them," Fulks says. "Maybe during the encore."

Fulks' first solo album, "Country Love Songs" (1996), heralded the arrival of a new talent. Later CDs included "The Very Best of Robbie Fulks" (2000), which wasn't, in the traditional sense; it was a collection of B-sides and rarities.

In 1998, he had a brush with a major label with the wrongly maligned "Let's Kill Saturday Night," on Geffen Records. More than a few critics in the alt-country press wrote as if they'd been betrayed, complaining that the CD was too slick, that the sound and arrangements owed more to Mellencamp and Springsteen than to Fulks despite strong songwriting.

Then, for his next album back on a small label, "Couples in Trouble" (2001), Fulks went in the opposite direction, self-producing a collection of bare tunes that veered stylistically from country to cabaret.

But Fulks doesn't think he was trying to win back the critics.

"It's hard to predict the kinds of responses (a CD will get), so I try not to think about it and just do what I feel like doing ... to represent what I've been listening to and what's coming out in my writing," he says.

At the same time, he says, "If I went back in my mind to the day before the Geffen record came out, I guess I was expecting that some people who liked my prior stuff would like that. And I thought ('Couples') could appeal to some people alienated by the Geffen thing, in that it doesn't come after you with guns blazing. I was trying to write songs that were lyrically strong in the way that country is lyrically strong without respecting marketing categories."

Fulks was first noticed outside Chicago thanks to the "Insurgent Country" compilations produced by that city's Bloodshot Records, a home to rootsy artists who celebrate influences from bluegrass to punk.

Although it might seem odd that country music would flourish in Chicago, Fulks says that city is a perfect incubator for independent music.

"It's not a music-business town," he says. "There's not as much money in the music, not as much pressure, and people feel freer to experiment, to hybridize, to sing and play out of tune. So the amateur kid element comes out more."

But Fulks doesn't think that alt-country will ever make the jump to mainstream despite a healthy press and very loyal fans.

"Not unless there's a Madonna or a Sheryl Crow or an Eminem there, I don't see it. But I never did," he says. "I just don't see anyone (in the alt-country camp) who can tap into what 1 million people want to hear."