He doesn't really hate Nashville – he was just a little frustrated. That's what led Robbie Fulks to write "Fuck This Town," his tongue-in-cheek kiss-off to the country music capital of the world, which he released in 1997 after spending a few fruitless years trying to sell his songs in Music City's publishing market.
That song helped make Fulks one of the faces of Chicago-based Bloodshot Records' unlikely cast of country-loving characters. The label is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the two-CD set While No One Was Looking, with artists including Andrew Bird, Blitzen Trapper and Superchunk covering songs by some of Bloodshot's finest releases, from Ryan Adams and the Old 97's to Cory Branan and Justin Townes Earle.
The little label has been calling its self-imposed niche "insurgent country" since back before the adjective became universally recognized as a synonym for terrorists. It's still a useful mental image, befitting Bloodshot alumni such as Neko Case, who was infamously banned for life from the Grand Ole Opry when she took off her shirt at a broiling-hot outdoor event, and Jon Langford, the co-founding member of punk lifers the Mekons who makes excellent, vintage-inspired paintings of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and other country greats.
Among its 38 tracks, While No One Was Looking features versions of songs from Fulks' recent return to the label, Gone Away Backward, and Case's 2002 album Blacklisted, as well as several songs from Adams' ballyhooed 2000 debut, Heartbreaker. One of those, Blitzen Trapper's loping cover of "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," recently premiered on Rolling Stone Country.
Besides introducing the music world to some true originals, Bloodshot has released several historic recordings by heritage artists including Hank Thompson and Spade Cooley. The label staff and their roster are irreverent, yes – sometimes wildly so – but they're also plenty serious about American music.
Before moving on to a major label, the Old 97's launched their career with Bloodshot. Their recent success with the album Most Messed Up (on Dave Matthews' ATO Records) can be attributed in large part to their return to the reckless sound of their early years – the headlong, garage-y drive that unites most of Bloodshot's catalog.
"Trying to be perfect will drive you crazy," Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller said recently. "I tell my kids all the time, 'There's no such thing as perfect.' Realizing that and letting go has been a great thing."
Like a lot of their fellow Bloodshot alumni, Fulks thinks he's both an incurable iconoclast and country to the core. "I feel it's an ongoing tension in my life," he once said. And you can't make great music without a little tension.
While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records hits stories November 18th. See its full track list here.