Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis on their excellent new collaborative LP
Linda Gail Lewis is the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis and learned about life on the road by singing backup in her brother’s band in the 50s. She made her first solo album, The Two Sides of Linda Gail Lewis, in 1969. She dropped out of music for a while to raise a family, returning to front her own band in the 80s. Her singing is full of country soul and her piano playing combines elements of boogie woogie, country, blues and rockabilly, harking back to the early days of rock’n’roll. She’s toured the US and Europe for decades and made more than 20 albums, but none of them ever caught fire. When she asked Robbie Fulks to sing a duet with her on an album she was cutting for a Swedish label, things went so well they decided to collaborate on another recording.
Fulks has two Grammy nominations to his name (Best Folk Album for 2016’s Upland Stories; Best American Roots Song for 2016’s “Alabama at Night”) and 13 albums under his belt. His combination of folk, hard core country, pop, punk and rock makes his style hard to categorize, but his songs are driven by his ironic vocals, dark humor, insightful lyrics and masterful guitar playing. When he clicked with Lewis, they decided to make an album together and the result is Wild Wild Wild, easily one of the best country albums cut in the last decade. Lewis compliments her dynamic vocals with her incendiary piano work and their duets equal the best of George & Tammy and Conway & Loretta. They spoke about their collaboration on a conference call, with Fulks home in Chicago and Lewis on another headlining tour of Sweden.
How did you meet and decide to record together?
Linda Gail Lewis: We met in Sweden. I’ve done three or four albums over there. It’s a small country and I have a good agent that keeps me busy. I was making another Swedish album and invited Robbie to do some duets with me. It worked so well, he asked me to come to Chicago and do some more recording. Robbie had written some great songs and for me; everything starts with the songs. At first, it was going to be a solo album, with some good duets.
Robbie Fulks: That’s what I was thinking, but Bloodshot Records was paying for it and they thought it would be better to have our names side by side on the cover. I was happy to do the duets with Linda. It was pretty heavenly.
Linda, how does this project differ from You Win Again, the duo album you did with Van Morrison?
LGL: Robbie and I do the same kind of music. Van did attempt an album with me, but country is not what he does best. Robbie is a joy to work with. He was concerned about having good songs to sing, so he wrote some for me. With Van, it was “Jambalaya” and “Crazy Arms” and things like that. The songs Robbie wrote for this album are the best songs I’ve ever sung. And he’s a very good producer. He gets me as an artist and knows how to get the best from me.
What new experiences did you encounter making this record?
LGL: I’ve never had so much fun in the studio. All the musicians were talented people.
RF: It might be boring to read how wonderful it was. I’ve seldom produced anyone, but myself. When you get in there and you’re under the gun, and on the clock, you never know what you’re going to get. Linda was open to any idea and stayed sunny and positive the whole time. She was the first one in, and the last one out, of every session. Her talent and attitude was keeping the whole boat afloat.
LGL: I thought that’s what you were doing! (Laughs) I remember when we came back from a dinner of wonderful Mexican food and finished seven songs in one evening. You jumped in with your guitar and it was magic.
RF: That’s the way it’s supped to be. Just playing music, but it isn’t always that way, when you’re all in your own isolation chambers in there.
LGL: It can be risky with personalities you’ve never met or played with, but Robbie brought in great folks. We worked wonderfully together. There was no drama. I can’t remember one awkward moment.
All the music was done live, in the studio, correct?
RF: All live, yes, vocals and music done at the same time. I did a couple of overdubs on “Who Cares.” I lost my voice in January, just before our last session, so I had to shoehorn a vocal in. Otherwise, the whole band was in one room, listening with their ears and letting Linda’s singing lead the way. If you’re playing to a prerecorded voice, it comes out fishy sometimes.
LGL: It’s best album I ever made, the best songs I ever had. I had a chance to do these great duets with Robbie and all the musicians worked together really well. I had a blast.
RF: Everybody was congenial and supportive. It may be boring to read, but it was very congenial.
Will you be touring together to support the album?
LGL: Yes, this September and October and hopefully next year. I’m excited about it.
RF: Me too! I have a nice van rented and I’m ready to go.