Pinned to the mat during this year’s SXSW in Austin, the rollicking rockers tag-teams on everything from songwriting and singing to advice for young musicians and a certain famous sibling.
BY ROBIN E. COOK
Take one vivacious country-rockabilly chanteuse who released her first recordings 50 years ago. Add one Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter with a knack for smart lyrics. The result is Wild! Wild! Wild! (Bloodshot) by Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis. Rollicking roots-rock is the prevailing sound, but the album’s thirteen tracks include black comedy (“Till Death”), country-soul (“Foolmaker”), and wistful balladry (“Hardluck, Louisiana,” inspired by Lewis’s childhood). As their joint interview shows, Fulks and Lewis are in perfect sync as musical partners.
Could you tell me about how your collaboration came about?
Linda: We got to be friends. We worked for the same promoter and I’m a fan of Robbie’s. I went to his gig and met him. Then we ended up staying in the same place for a little while and we got to know each other, and Robbie had the idea of working together. I thought it was a great idea. I still do! (laughs)
A lot your previous work, Linda, consists of you doing duets and harmonizing with your brother [Jerry Lee Lewis] and with Van Morrison. What does it feel like to step out as a front woman and sing these songs as a soloist?
Linda: It feels really great, and I really appreciate how that Robbie has written really great songs for me to sing. But, you know, it’s like my old friend Dan Penn once said: “It all starts with a song.” And now I have the best songs that I have ever had in my life. So, I’m very happy about that.
Robbie, could you tell me a bit about the songwriting process for the album?
Robbie: It was just like any other songwriting deal for me, which is going into a dark room and waiting for something to swim into vision and then follow it through and throw ninety percent of it away. I mean that’s kind of my process. And so with her, there was the added element of working with biographical details from her life, which is helpful, because it helps you zero in on what you’re writing about and what the goal is. And you’re hearing her voice sing the song, so that also helps to narrow it down. And it was a lot of fun to write. I think my proportion was better writing for this than usual. In other words, I think that there was maybe a forty or fifty discard rate. We recorded a lot of what I wrote.
So, you were writing a lot of the songs with Linda’s voice in mind?
Robbie: Yeah, yeah. And contrary to what you implied a moment ago, she does have, she has a ton of solo work behind her. I know when she does the duo work, it can be more prominent, because her duo partners are sometimes famous, but she’s been doing a lot of solo work for the last 30, 35 years.
Sorry about that, Linda!
Linda: No, no, no! I’m fine! I had a long career being my brother’s backing vocalist and doing just a couple of songs to open for him and then doing duets with him. We had a duets album [Together, released 1969] that I was really proud of. So, for 15 years, that’s what I did. And then I took off 10 years to be at home with my children and then I went back on the road and ended up singing with Van Morrison. And now I’m having the most fun I‘ve ever had singing with Robbie. Don’t tell my brother that I said that! (laughs) I love my brother so much but you know, Robbie and I work so well together. It’s been a real joy.
(to Linda) I’m curious: when it comes to working with other people and doing duets, was there any advice that your brother gave you in that regard?
Linda: Well, you know that my brother is so different from anybody else that he’s not that easy to sing with so that but, you know, it’s easy for me to sing with Robbie. It’s much easier. And of course, singing with Van Morrison was just about impossible. It was hard with my brother, impossible with Van, and now it’s easy for me to sing with Robbie.
One thing I noticed, what did it feel like for you to be singing songs that, in some ways, were drawn from your own life? And suddenly realize, “Hey, that is my experience.”
Linda: We had to work on that because I would become very emotional when I was singing “Hardluck, Louisiana.” So, I actually had to sing it quite a few times and even in two different studios to really get the vocal that that we like. And it was because the song, when I’m singing it, I have a tendency to forget that I’m singing and just become an emotional person, which is not what you can do. Then your vocal will suffer.
I wanted to ask you, Robbie, about “I Just Lived a Country Song.” I mean there’s definitely this sort of tongue and cheek element to some of the songs as well. Like that one is the best example.
Robbie: I think that’s in the tradition, and that’s what drew me to country music a long time ago, when I was young, was that you could be you could be totally comical and just goofball and cornpone, and you can be the opposite end. You can sing about the death of a child…the most serious subjects in the world. And then you could be in between. You could sing kind of ironically in that song with a little bit of self-conscious irony. I like that open-ended range. That comedy is feasible and that you can also just stare into the abyss and confront things. I love that about country lyrics. I think those and Broadway lyrics I think are just incomparable for lyrical depth in popular music.
I think that really that wit is sometimes overlooked in country music. You even look at songs like “I’m Going to Hire a Wino to Redecorate Our Home.”
Robbie: Exactly. And I think there are probably modern examples we can pick off country radio right now. As horrible as a lot of that music is, there is still a lot of attention to lyrics in country music and the stories are still pretty good sometimes, and the sense of humor is still there. I complain about the new music but there is still some residual intelligence and humor from the old days.
Is there any advice that you guys would give for up-and-coming musicians?
Linda: Try not to get discouraged. It’s easy to get discouraged. I think the hardest part of it is that you get rejected so much in the beginning. I think the rejection part of it is the toughest. Anybody starting out, they need to brace themselves, because they’re gonna get their heart broken for sure.