Robbie Fulks And Linda Gail Lewis On Singing Harmony And Living A 'Wild!' Life
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I hope you're enjoying your Thanksgiving. We want to play something that will add to your enjoyment of the day, so we're featuring our recent performance and interview with Linda Gail Lewis and Robbie Fulks. Linda Gail Lewis is the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis, who is aptly described in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as the wild man of rock 'n' roll. They grew up in a shack in Ferriday, La. She learned to play piano from watching him. They started performing together when she was 14 in the early 1960s. Jerry Lee Lewis and Linda Gail Lewis recorded together, and she toured with him for many years in the '60s and '70s before going off on her own.
Robbie Fulks is songwriter, singer and guitarist. A lot of his songs are in the tradition of classic country music. They're so good. I can't understand why lots of other country singers haven't recorded them. Linda Gail Lewis and Robbie Fulks have a new album together called "Wild! Wild! Wild!" Most of the songs were written by Fulks, inspired by roots music like rockabilly, country and western and soul. We'll hear them perform in our studio, but let's start with something from the album, the title track, written by Fulks. Linda Gail Lewis is featured on piano, Fulks on guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD! WILD! WILD!")
ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) Back when this land was a jungle, that's when it was my home. I had a lion's blood. All I wanted was to ravage and to roam.
LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) Once you crossed paths with this stray cat, we was ripping it up in style.
ROBBIE FULKS AND LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) We were fast and free, weren't we - wild, wild, wild. Well, the backwoods clung to our sneakers, and our knees showed through our jeans. Fast as our hearts beat, how come we weren't blown to smithereens?
LEWIS: (Singing) The upper crust all looked at us like the devil's own stepchild.
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) And they figured us well because truth to tell, we was wild, wild, wild.
GROSS: Linda Gail Lewis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Robbie Fulks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your album "Wild! Wild! Wild!" So you're from pretty different generation. You're from different parts of the country. How did you get together, and what do you think you bring out in each other?
FULKS: Gosh, Linda brings out a good mood in me because she's perpetually happy and positive, and I'm not so much maybe. But she is a constant reminder to me - like, we did a gig the other night, and I had gotten the van - if you remember, it was last week - and immediately started complaining about this and that.
FULKS: And she just said, well, I thought the gig went great. And I thought, I shouldn't have opened my mouth, you know, because if you say it was so, then it kind of is so, you know? And so just to smile and to have a upbeat attitude toward life is what I get out of her.
LEWIS: And I'm just so happy to be working with Robbie. He's a wonderful person. He's a great friend. And he's so very talented. And he's written wonderful songs for me to record (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah, he has (laughter). So Linda, we just heard a sample of your piano style, which is very similar to your brother Jerry Lee Lewis' piano style. But you didn't start playing until you were 30 or 40 or something.
LEWIS: I was actually 40. You know, I knew the basic chords on the piano, you know, like, for just accompanying myself if I was writing a song or just singing a gospel song or a country song or something. But I didn't know how to play rock 'n' roll or boogie-woogie because I'd been on the road with my brother. So that wasn't needed in our act. When I left his band, it was necessary for me to figure it out. And thank goodness he had shown me a lot of things that I fortunately could remember.
GROSS: What did he show you?
LEWIS: He showed me basically this - I call it the Jerry Lee Lewis invention 'cause it's kind of like a Bach invention, only it's for boogie-woogie and rock 'n' roll. He came up with this thing for me to play. And he said, if you play this and you start out really slow and then work up to speed, then it will open up everything for you, and you'll be able to play rock 'n' roll and boogie-woogie piano.
GROSS: What about the glissandos, where you slide down the notes of the piano?
LEWIS: That just comes naturally to me.
GROSS: I always think it must tear up your hands (laughter).
LEWIS: It does.
GROSS: Does it?
GROSS: OK, so you sing great harmonies together. Did that come naturally? I mean, Linda, you certainly sang a lot of harmonies with your brother in the past.
LEWIS: Well, I have. You know, my brother's a great singer, and so is Robbie. So it reminds me of doing duets with my brother. And it wasn't hard for me to sing with Robbie. I love singing with him.
FULKS: Yeah, the first time that we - she invited me to sing on her gospel record, what was about eight or nine years ago - and we were in a little studio in Sweden. And we had never sung together before, but it was a tune that, you know, is a standard tune that we both knew real well. And we opened our mouths and started singing.
And I found it was extremely comfortable right away. It's like dancing, you know, with an expert partner where she allows me to - a lot of freedom and to essentially lead I guess. So I can sing whatever note I feel like, and she's just on it. She's just really intuitively - and probably watching the mouth - but just intuitively on it. So we sat down and sang...
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) I am a pilgrim and a stranger traveling through this wearisome land...
FULKS: You know, that old tune.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
FULKS: And it just fell right into place kind of like just that, you know?
GROSS: Oh, that's great. So you do some great harmonies on an original, Robbie, that you wrote called "That's Why They Call It Temptation." Could you sing some of that for us now?
LEWIS: Yes, of course.
FULKS: (Singing) It wasn't just the promise of a thrill.
LEWIS: (Singing) Nor your tender touch alone that broke my will.
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) It was knowing where we were going, we'd never turn back round. And in one reckless night, we'd be forever bound. That's why they call it temptation. There's no power so strong.
FULKS: (Singing) For our hearts could see the right thing...
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) Yet we ran to the wrong. That's why they call it temptation, for long after it's through...
FULKS: (Singing) I'm back home with her tonight.
LEWIS: (Singing) And I'm holding him tight.
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) But still dreaming of you. I'm still dreaming of you.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for doing that. And that song is on Robbie Fulks' and Linda Gail Lewis' new album called "Wild! Wild! Wild!" But of course, we've just heard them perform it here in our studio. You're both from very different backgrounds. So, Linda, let me ask you. You grew up in a shack in Louisiana. Would you describe the shack for us?
LEWIS: Well, it was this gray building. There was kind of, like, holes in it in places. And we didn't have a bathroom on the inside. We had to bathe in a tin tub out on the porch in the summer or in the kitchen where there's heat in the winter. It was tough. It was hard living there. And it was embarrassing for me when I'd get off the school bus because...
GROSS: Most of the other kids weren't as poor.
LEWIS: I didn't see any other shacks exactly like that one, maybe one or two. But still, when it's you getting off the bus and it's your shack, it's embarrassing. So it was hard for me. But, you know, I was able to leave there pretty early because, you know, my brother got us out of there when I was 10 years old.
GROSS: Well, yeah, 'cause, you know, he became famous as Jerry Lee Lewis. He signed with Sun Records. And people know how that story went. So it must have really profoundly affected your family life when there was money coming in and he became famous.
LEWIS: Oh, it was wonderful. We went to Memphis. I remember our first trip to Memphis. It was so great. But of course the main thing that I remember is that Jerry bought us a new house in town, a nice brick home with everything - bathroom on the inside (laughter). It was lovely. And he gave us a thousand dollars to go shopping. My mama had two dresses, one to wear to church and one to wear at home. That's all she had. And we took a thousand dollars to Doris' Dress Shop in Ferriday, La., and bought everything they had in our sizes.
GROSS: Everyone in your family made music, right?
LEWIS: Well, yes, my mama was a great singer. She was the song leader in our church. And Daddy played guitar, and he played a little bit of piano.
GROSS: So one thing you have in common in terms of your background is I think, you know, you both grew up in musical families. Although, Linda, there was a famous person in your family - well, not just Jerry Lee Lewis. Jimmy Swaggart is your cousin. And he's, like, the famous televangelist - a famous televangelist preacher. But he performed in those shows, too, didn't he, like sing and play?
LEWIS: Yes, he did. And he's a wonderful piano player. And he is a wonderful singer. And...
FULKS: Great singer.
LEWIS: Yeah, he's a great singer. He's a great preacher. And he was off of TV for a while because of the scandal, but he's back on now.
GROSS: Right. And the scandal involved a prostitute and pornography (laughter).
LEWIS: I think so.
LEWIS: Although there are some little old ladies that think that he was framed (laughter).
GROSS: Is that true?
LEWIS: I did have a couple of people tell me that, yes (laughter).
GROSS: But you don't think he was framed?
LEWIS: Well, I think that's far-fetched.
LEWIS: I love Jimmy, and I wouldn't say anything bad about him. But that'd be a bit far-fetched.
GROSS: OK. So - and did you both grow up singing in church a lot, too?
FULKS: I did a little bit, yeah. And...
LEWIS: I did a lot.
GROSS: Did you sing a lot of church songs at home even though you just did a little singing in church, Robbie?
FULKS: You know, I'm trying to remember. I did a lot of singing with my family. And I went to - I stopped going to church partly because we were living so far from anything, and I didn't have transportation. My parents weren't churchgoers. But I think I stopped going to church around age 13. And they were largely, like, Methodist churches with uninteresting hymnal singing. They weren't like the real cool music that Linda was probably doing.
GROSS: So Linda, I think your family helped build the church that your family belonged to.
LEWIS: Well, they did. You know, it was a Holy Roller church, so it wasn't so popular. In our little town of Ferriday, you'd have, like, a thousand people attending the Baptist church and maybe 500 the Methodist and 200 Catholics and about 50 Pentecostals.
GROSS: And that was your church?
LEWIS: And that was our church.
GROSS: So what kind of music was in the church?
LEWIS: Oh, it was great music. And Robbie would have loved it, you know?
LEWIS: He'd have probably been finding a way to get to church if he was going to that one. It was just - you know, it was wonderful music, upbeat - most of the time, not all the time. But it was very emotional, though. I mean, sometimes it was frightening and sad. But when they did those songs like "I'll Fly Away" and stuff like that, it was absolutely wonderful.
GROSS: I'm wondering if your brother and you first got your hands on a piano in church because it - if you were living in a shack, I doubt there was a piano in the shack.
LEWIS: Well, my mama and daddy found a way to get my brother a piano when he was 8 years old.
GROSS: In the shack?
LEWIS: I guess, yeah. We were still...
GROSS: In the shack with the holes in it?
LEWIS: We were definitely in the shack with the holes in it.
FULKS: It was at your aunt's house, yeah?
LEWIS: Well, he - they bought it from my aunt. My Aunt Eva (ph) had a piano she had bought for her daughter, Norma Jean (ph). And Norma Jean just wouldn't take the lessons and play the piano. So she said she just wanted to sell it. So she sold it to my mama and daddy. And Daddy moved that piano downstairs by himself...
LEWIS: ...Because they lived up over their cafe that - they had a cafe. And they lived up over it, so it was upstairs. And Jerry told me. He said, I can't believe how Daddy could move that piano down those stairs by himself. It was an upright piano. My brother still has it.
GROSS: Wow. So now that we've talked a little bit about your church background, can I ask you to do a song that you also do on the new album "Wild! Wild! Wild!"? I'm going to ask you to sing your duet of "On The Jericho Road." And did you both know this song before you decided to do it together?
LEWIS: Well, I was sitting at a Burger King in Tromso, Norway (laughter). I got an email from Robbie saying, well, we need to do some gospel. And I suggested "Jericho Road," didn't I, Robbie?
FULKS: You did, yeah. And you directed me to Jerry's insane performance of it...
FULKS: ...With a, yeah, unbelievable piano solo.
LEWIS: And then I immediately told you, I'm not playing that piano solo. I made you play the guitar solo.
FULKS: You made me play the guitar.
FULKS: And for better or worse...
LEWIS: Not really. But I asked you to.
FULKS: ...This is what we came up with.
(Vocalizing, playing guitar).
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) As you travel along on the Jericho road, there's room for just two. Brother, don't carry a load. Just bring it to Christ, your sins all confess. On the Jericho road, your heart he will bless.
FULKS: (Singing) On the Jericho Road.
LEWIS: (Singing) On the Jericho Road.
FULKS: (Singing) There's room for just two.
LEWIS: (Singing) There's room for just two.
FULKS: (Singing) No more, no less.
LEWIS: (Singing) No more or no less.
FULKS: (Singing) Only Jesus and you.
LEWIS: (Singing) Just Jesus and you.
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) Each burden he'll bear. Each sorrow he'll share. There's never a care. Precious Jesus is there. There's never a care. Precious Jesus is there.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for that. I loved it.
FULKS: Warts and all.
GROSS: No, that was wonderful. So we just heard you sing "On The Jericho Road," which is a very Christian song. And Linda, I think you're still in the church.
LEWIS: Well, I'm not exactly in a church. They won't have me. But I am a Christian.
GROSS: But you're still deeply a Christian?
LEWIS: Yeah, I haven't found one that would agree with everything I do (laughter). But yes, I do go to church occasionally. But I don't, like, belong to a church. But I'm very spiritual, and I love the Lord.
GROSS: And Robbie, as I remember from our last interview, you completely moved away from the church.
FULKS: Yeah. I'm an atheist, which I haven't really discussed with Linda until this moment. But there it is.
GROSS: Are you OK with that, Linda?
LEWIS: I already knew that he was an atheist. I read it on one of those social media things.
GROSS: Your secret is long out.
FULKS: Yeah. The cat's out of the bag.
GROSS: But you still love singing those songs.
FULKS: I really do. I mean, they're great songs. I mean, songs about belief - you know, that's what makes a love song great 'cause you believe it when you sing it. And songs about transcendental belief to me are all the more powerful.
GROSS: Do you have any transcendental thing to believe in?
FULKS: The heat death of the universe. But no, I don't really consider that a faith I guess, so no.
GROSS: OK (laughter). Linda, what did your parents think, being such church people, when Jerry Lee Lewis along with you, his younger sister, started performing these, like, wild songs, totally secular, kind of blasphemous probably within your church? So how did that go over in the family? Now, granted he was bringing in a lot of money and got the family out of poverty, so I'm sure they liked that. But there was a lot that went along with that.
LEWIS: Well, you know, my parents defended my brother always. And they didn't necessarily agree with his theory, which is that he was doing the devil's music. They didn't really feel that like he did. And - but the people in the church weren't happy with us. I mean, mama would still go. And she'd take me with her a lot of times.
And people weren't all that nice to us in the church anymore. But Jerry feels like - you know, he used to feel like that was the devil's music. I don't know if he feels that way so much now. I think he's mellowed on that.
GROSS: Did you ever feel like you were going to go to hell because of the music you were playing or the life you were living?
LEWIS: I never felt that way.
GROSS: Even when you were young and...
LEWIS: Well, when I was young, I was scared to death.
LEWIS: I mean...
GROSS: Of hell?
LEWIS: Yeah, of hell. I mean, those preachers would preach those sermons and would scare you to death.
GROSS: Sure. But then you're going from that to - I mean, you were married at the age of 14. I mean, you were drinking. You were on the road with your brother. I mean, that is not, like, what would be defined as the righteous life if you want - do you know what I'm saying?
LEWIS: I was pretty crazy as a kid.
GROSS: Yeah, that's what I'm saying.
LEWIS: I admit that (laughter).
LEWIS: Yes, I was.
GROSS: In those early days of being wild, as in "Wild! Wild! Wild!," the album title...
LEWIS: (Laughter) Back in the day.
GROSS: ...Did you worry about hell? Did you worry about, you know, not being redeemed?
LEWIS: Maybe a little bit when I wasn't drinking Wild Turkey and 7UP...
LEWIS: ...And had a chance to think about it. But yes, I probably did worry about it. But I've just always felt like that Jesus forgives us of our sins because that's what the Bible says. And a lot of people miss that. And they have all these ideas about what you can do and you can't do.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what it was like to be performing with your brother when you were in your early teens.
LEWIS: It was wonderful. It was absolutely great. I wanted so much to go on the road with him. And of course I was in school. But then I met this guy and fell in love with him, and we got married. But it only lasted for I think a few months. It wasn't long at all. And I ended up with a divorce. And then I said, well, I can't really go back to school because I've just gone through this divorce. So how about me going on the road with you, Jerry?
LEWIS: And he took me on the road.
GROSS: So you were - you met Elvis Presley. You probably met all the rockabilly performers and a lot of other now-famous performers, too.
LEWIS: It's been absolutely wonderful. I mean, Chuck Berry and Little Richard - and Fats Domino was a lovely man. It was so great being around all those guys.
GROSS: My guests are pianist and singer Linda Gail Lewis and songwriter, singer and pianist Robbie Fulks. Their new album of duets is called "Wild! Wild! Wild!" After a break, we'll talk more. They'll sing more. And we'll hear a track that Linda Gail Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded in 1969. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO CARES")
LEWIS: (Singing) I walk down this old lonely street, and no one seems to want to speak. Oh, who cares? Yes, who cares for me? All the world seems cold. Everything is grey...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our session with singer and pianist Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis' younger sister, and songwriter, singer and guitarist Robbie Fulks. They have a new album of duets called "Wild! Wild! Wild!" They're also performing for us in our studio. Linda Gail Lewis toured with Jerry Lee Lewis in the '60s and '70s starting when she was 14.
(SOUNDBITE OF LINDA GAIL LEWIS AND JERRY LEE LEWIS SONG, "SECRET PLACES")
GROSS: Let's hear Linda Gail Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis singing a duet from their 1969 album called "Together." The song is called "Secret Places."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECRET PLACES")
LEWIS: (Singing) Every time you hold me close, we meet in secret places. We can't go out on the town 'cause people know our faces.
JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) We've loved each other all these years. We've lived with constant shame and fear.
JERRY LEE LEWIS AND LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) But we'll go on and live our love tonight in secret places. Secret places, hidden faces...
GROSS: That was Linda Gail Lewis and her brother Jerry Lee Lewis from 1969 on an album of duets that they recorded called "Together." And with me is Linda Gail Lewis along with Robbie Fulks, who is a great songwriter, singer and guitarist. And they have a new album of duets called "Wild! Wild! Wild!"
Robbie, the last time we spoke, which was the first time we spoke (laughter), we talked a lot about how you spent years in Nashville trying to write songs for other country performers who were likely to have, like, a hit because they were already well-known.
FULKS: You were very interested in that, I remember.
GROSS: I was very interested in that because I think - you know, like, Nashville kind of became like Tin Pan Alley, in a way...
GROSS: ...Where people were writing songs for other performers. And I think, you know, rock 'n' roll stopped being that way, and Nashville kind of picked it up. And I just think you're also just a terrific songwriter.
FULKS: Well, thank you.
GROSS: So we talked about how you'd stopped doing that. You were writing songs for a music publishing company, and you'd stopped doing that because the people who you were hoping would turn your songs into moneymakers weren't buying. I mean, they weren't interested in doing the songs. Correct me if I'm wrong here. And so you just started writing for yourself again.
FULKS: Yeah. I mean, I guess that's a...
GROSS: Give me your version of what I just said (laughter).
FULKS: No, that's a version of it. I think - well, I was writing songs for myself and for - and songs that I kind of disliked but as pitches to other people. And some of the songs were kind of down the middle. Like, I'd start out writing them with Reba in mind or something like that, and I'd end up liking them and sing them. But not so many of them. But I think the trouble that I had had more to do with internal politics at the place I was working for.
The guy that signed me left shortly after I got signed, and then I was represented by somebody that I didn't know and that I think didn't like my music that much. So there was that going on. And I was - at the time, I was looking for sort of any door into the business. I wasn't sure which it would be - as a writer or as a bluegrass flatpicker, which I'd done right before that, or as what. So I was trying this writing thing.
At the same time, there was a little label starting up in Chicago that was interested in just - in my records and putting out my records. And so I thought, well, one of these things might catch on. Like, either somebody will cut one of my tunes and I'll stay here in Nashville doing this, or I'll end up, you know, in a van riding around with people on this little punk-ish label and putting out my own records. And it ended up being that.
GROSS: Riding around in a van, putting out your own records?
FULKS: I'm still in the van and still putting out my own records. And I'm still on that label, which is Bloodshot. And I think I'm much - you know, was sort of fated to be that in a way, probably. I think I always - since I was a kid, I wanted - the idea of putting out music - you know, records with your name on the cover and songs that you made up - that was what all the guys that I admired like John Hartford and The Beatles and Bob Dylan - well, a lot of them, anyway - were doing that.
So that was sort of the grand template I think. And it's just sort of the ultimate vehicle for self-expression I think. You know, you write all the tunes. You record the records. It's like a little - it's a little DIY operation I have. It doesn't make me a lot of money, but it keeps me pretty - it keeps me really busy.
GROSS: I probably said this the last time we spoke, but if I were a country music singer, I'd want to be singing your songs.
FULKS: Well, thank you. I can't picture you as a country music singer.
GROSS: That's because it is so improbable.
GROSS: But I love country music. You know, it's probably hard to picture me as any kind of singer for a good reason. But (laughter) - but I love country music. You know, it's not what I grew up with, but I've just come to love the emotional quality of it and the songcraft. I just find it very fulfilling to listen to it.
FULKS: Yeah. I really love - I mean, there's so much of it I love. There's the lyrical honesty. You know, we were introducing that adultery song we were singing last night. And I said, this is a country song about adultery just intending to be descriptive, but people laughed 'cause I guess it's kind of funny. But other forms of music don't address these life fundamentals.
GROSS: They're kind of adult songs in some ways because they're about...
GROSS: Like, they're about drinking. They're about cheating, about marriages breaking up.
FULKS: They're about sin.
GROSS: They're about sin. Yeah. And so it's - they can be very emotionally deep (laughter).
FULKS: Yeah. Well, the other thing I was going to say I like about the older country music - really the older, not so much the newer - is the performance quality. You know, you can hear people in a room communicating with one another vocally and instrumentally. And it's done quickly. You know, a song is an hour's worth of work, and some of the best musicians in the world are in this small room all listening to each other and creating that wonderful, pulsating synergy together.
GROSS: Can you play an example of the kind of sound we're talking about - in my opinion the kind of song we're talking about, "When You Get To The Bottom," which is a great song about love lost and drinking and...
GROSS: ...Jealousy and all of that?
FULKS: Thank you.
GROSS: You want to say anything about writing it, like, what the occasion was for writing it?
FULKS: Oh, it was a - it was pretty banal, Terry. It was - like, I think I was looking to fill out a record with a honky-tonk song. And it was a record with a bunch of depressing and...
FULKS: ...I don't know and state of the USA songs on it. I thought, just, like, a honky-tonk, like, classic country-sounding thing would be a nice counterbalance to all this other stuff. It goes (singing) one year free and single, and my, how we've grown. You swing with the stars while I'm in this bar drinking alone. Yes, you're flying high. Live it up while you can. But when you get to the bottom, don't reach for my hand.
That's just the first verse of it. Linda's never heard this music before (laughter). It's weird singing it in front of her.
LEWIS: It's great. I love that.
FULKS: Let's do it tonight at the show.
LEWIS: Why not?
GROSS: Yeah, I love that. I love that song, too. That was Robbie Fulks playing a song he wrote called "When You Get To The Bottom."
GROSS: Well, you know, on the new album "Wild! Wild! Wild!," you have a song, Robbie, that's basically a soul music song. I haven't heard you do that before. But it's called "Foolmaker." And, you know, there's a very soulful organ behind you and backup singers. How did you end up writing something more in the genre of soul music than country?
FULKS: Well, you know, recently, I was working on - this is a whole 'nother ball of wax. But I was working on a cover album version of a Bob Dylan record called "Street-Legal" that came out in 1979. In the course of doing that, I met these three soul singers in Chicago - or church singers. They also sing with a variety of people like Michael McDonald and Aretha Franklin - did sing with Aretha Franklin.
But their names are Yvonne Gage, Faith Howard and Joan Collaso. And so I was doing some recording with them. And they were really just lifting me into new realms and inspiring me. And I just never pictured myself singing with great soul singers behind me. And I think that gave me a lot of lift to write songs in that new vein, like "Foolmaker." And, I mean, besides that, I always loved soul music. Who doesn't? You know, it's great.
GROSS: So I think we need to hear "Foolmaker." This is a song by Robbie Fulks that he's performing on the new album "Wild! Wild! Wild!"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOLMAKER")
FULKS: (Singing) I felt the danger when I first looked in your eyes. I was young, headstrong but not so worldly-wise, too immature to know just what you were. You were a fool, foolmaker. Your smooth line of talking should have been a clue, moments of anger when your real face showed through. Young hearts were your raw parts, any trusting soul would do. You were a fool, foolmaker.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Foolmaker.
FULKS: (Singing) Making your wicked plans.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Foolmaker.
FULKS: (Singing) Lord, I fell right into your hands. You loved me and left me.
GROSS: That's Robbie Fulks' song that is featured on the new album "Wild! Wild! Wild!" It's a song he wrote. And the album is an album of duets with Robbie and Linda Gail Lewis, who is also a pianist and singer and the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis. And her piano playing is very much in that style.
So among the kinds of songs you've written, you've written a lot of drinking songs. And they're always very persuasive. Was drinking ever an issue for you?
FULKS: It still is...
FULKS: ...An issue. Yeah.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
FULKS: I drank a bit much last night, as a matter of fact. I wasn't planning to. But I was excited about coming down here, and I think I had one too many. I'm a moderately heavy drinker. You look very concerned, but I was trying to be lighthearted about it. But I do drink. I do drink. And that's probably my only vice.
GROSS: It seems to be something that comes easy when people are on the road.
FULKS: Well, I do it at home, too, so I don't know.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. OK.
FULKS: This is headed in a suddenly dark direction.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: I'm going to take it slightly darker. Linda, there was a period I know - because you've written about it in your autobiography from the '90s - there was a period when you were doing drugs. You were addicted to quaaludes for a while. You overdosed four times, nearly died at least one of those times. And then you threw all the pills out the window, and I'm assuming you've been sober since then.
LEWIS: Oh, yes, I have. And I don't know if that would have ever happened to me if I hadn't lost my mother. But, you know, back in those days, the doctors never did say to us, oh, here's a bottle of pills, and take these. And you might get addicted to them. You know, no one said that.
GROSS: Oh, you were prescribed them and then got addicted.
LEWIS: They were prescribed, yes.
GROSS: Oh. Oh. Oh.
LEWIS: I never took any street drugs. Well, I didn't have to. I had plenty of doctors.
LEWIS: But it was about a year, I believe. But I had a really close call because I had reached the point where I just couldn't eat anything. And I had to have IVs for weeks. I don't even know how many weeks went by. And then my doctor would come in and say to me, you know, you're going to die if you don't get a hold of yourself and start eating and - but then he found a good psychiatrist for me, a wonderful man, a wonderful Christian man who was a psychiatrist. And he helped me so much.
And so I spent about a year going to the psychiatrist. And after about a year of that, I was OK. But it lasted - all of it together lasted about two years. The dangerous thing was that it just took so long for me to be able to actually eat food. It was crazy. I guess I had some kind of, like, mental breakdown. And I just couldn't eat.
And, you know, if you ever do that, if you ever have nearly starved to death like that, then you have an eating problem for the rest of your life usually because you're always worried about whether or not you're going to have anything to eat. I don't know why that is, but I've read about it that it's quite common. And it certainly has affected me. I can't be anywhere without having some kind of food with me just to make sure I have something.
GROSS: Linda, I'm going to ask you to do a song that you wrote. And this, too, is - it's a sad song.
LEWIS: It is. I was depressed when I wrote it.
GROSS: Yeah. It's "Heartbreak Highway." And you were telling me before we actually started recording that you write songs when you're sad, when you're depressed.
LEWIS: Well, most of them because, I mean, I have to feel at that moment what I'm writing. And it just comes to me. It just comes into my head. And then I go to the piano, and I hear the melody, and I have the lyrics. And that's the song (laughter).
GROSS: So how did this song come to you? What was going on in your life?
LEWIS: Well, a friend of mine - she was my best friend at one time. She had passed away. And she actually had married my ex-husband. Actually, she took him away from me when I was on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. And when I came home, I didn't have a husband. But I still loved her because she was my friend.
And when she passed away, I just felt really depressed. I felt depressed because she was gone. And I felt bad for him that he had lost his wife. And I was sitting in the car. And my husband went in an insurance office. And he stayed in there forever, as he does (laughter). And I just wrote the song in the car.
GROSS: Can you sing some of it acapella for us?
LEWIS: OK. (Singing) As I watch the sunset, the tears begin to roll. There's a dark and lonely feeling in my soul. Five hundred miles from Memphis, I'll head on down the road. And I'm on heartbreak highway, and I might lose control.
GROSS: Thank you. (Laughter) Oh, it's a really good song. How often do you write songs?
LEWIS: Oh, well, seldom ever. I mean, I wrote "It's A Dark And Lonely Road" (laughter) about I think seven years - seven or eight years ago. I was on tour in the U.K. And, oh, it was so depressing. We had this long drive, and I started thinking about things, you know?
And I wrote this song called "It's A Dark And Lonely Road." And I'm proud of that one. And I'm proud of "Heartbreak Highway." And I've written some other songs that are just kind of OK. Although I do really like "Pretty Little Pictures" because Robbie sang it with me.
LEWIS: And it's a cute little song about, you know, losing someone, but then you have the memories of them, "Pretty Little Pictures" in your mind.
FULKS: How long did it take - 'cause I remember you came in with a song written in long hand. And she's got this great cursive writing. She won penmanship in the third grade...
FULKS: ...And went to New Orleans as representative of her town. So it's this beautiful looping writing. And it was on Best Western stationery and nothing crossed out, if I remember. And I got the impression that you had written it the night before.
LEWIS: That's right. Annie helped me. We wrote it together. She was kind of a little bit down, too, because her grandmother had passed away. And I was saying to her, but you have all these wonderful memories, these pretty little pictures that you can always think about that. And that's how it happened.
GROSS: So who's Annie?
LEWIS: Annie is my daughter, Annie Marie Lewis.
GROSS: How many children do you have?
LEWIS: I have four altogether. And I actually still have two that are speaking to me.
LEWIS: If you have enough, you're still going to always have some left.
FULKS: Annie speaks enough for four.
LEWIS: Yes, we're very close.
GROSS: Maybe this is the wrong place to bring it up, but you've been married, like, eight times, nine times.
LEWIS: Well, I have. And I had two children with Cecil Harrelson, my - our - he was our family friend and my brother's friend from the age of 12 years old. And so we had two children. And then I married Brent, the one that my friend took away from me. And we had two children, Annie and Oliver. And they're still basically, almost, still at home. I mean, Annie is married, but she lives 15 minutes away. And my son's home a lot because we just love to be together.
GROSS: So we've heard you do duets together. You've also both recorded a lot solo. What are some of the pleasures of singing harmony?
FULKS: I feel it's kind of hard to describe. It's like the pleasure, as I was saying earlier, of dancing with an excellent partner. And it's like the pleasure of falling down on a nice soft bed, you know? And when you sing with a great partner, like I get to do with Linda, it really is almost like falling into a bed in its thoughtlessness and comfort and the good feeling. And I wish I could be more scientific about it. It's a good feeling.
LEWIS: I really - I enjoy harmonizing. Of course, I did with my brother and with my sister, Frankie Jean. And then now my son and my daughter sing with me, and that's a lot of fun when we do that.
GROSS: Oh, that's great.
FULKS: Woman plus man is an especially potent thing, though, at least in country music. Don't you think?
LEWIS: Oh, yes, of course. And the thing that mostly that I would do with my kids would be like gospel or folk music or something. But, yeah, the country songs with a man and a woman singing a duet, I think it's really great. And it hasn't been done so much lately, has it? I mean, I haven't heard a lot of really great country duets since the '70s.
FULKS: I haven't been paying attention since Shania Twain and Billy Currington did their duet. So I don't know what's been going on these last twenty years. But I'm sure that still exists. It's just so great.
LEWIS: Yeah, I probably don't listen to those...
FULKS: The two polarities.
LEWIS: (Laughter) I just remember, you know, George and Tammy and those duets.
FULKS: Sure, unbeatable.
GROSS: So I have chosen all the songs that I've asked you to do. Would you like to choose a song to play for us to end?
FULKS: Let's see. We could do a little bit of "I Just Lived A Country Song." How about that?
LEWIS: Sure. I love this song so much. It's just about my favorite song on the album.
GROSS: It sounds like it's autobiographical. But it's not, right?
FULKS: I was working on a musical. And it was a country music musical, and the play didn't end up going forward. So I was left over with these sort of classic country sounding songs that I'd written for it, which were easily taken from the context of that show. And so in the play, the daughter of an old-classic country singer sings one of her dad's songs. He's dead. But he was sort of maybe a contemporary of - or just pass the Hank Williams era.
And it's from the point of view of somebody that used to be a hitmaker in country music, and now the hits have stopped coming. And they're still out on the road doing smaller and smaller gigs. And so the semi-joke that I make when I'm playing it live with Linda is that it's my story but without the hits. That's my story.
LEWIS: (Laughter) Well, I think we all can feel a little bit of this - all of us in the music business, singers and songwriters can feel this - and players.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST LIVED A COUNTRY SONG")
FULKS: (Singing) My first single hit the big time. For a while there, I was hot. I can't recall the early '90s. These last 10, I'd rather not. There are mornings when I wonder what I can show for all my time. Oh, but I sure can sing with feeling. Whiskey river take my mind.
FULKS AND LEWIS: This honky-tonking way of living, I've been living way too long. Excuse me if I'm late for heaven. I just lived a country song. Oh, and if I never get to heaven, it's because I lived a country song.
GROSS: Thank you both so much. And that was Linda Gail Lewis and Robbie Fulks playing in our studio. That song is also on their new album of duets, "Wild! Wild! Wild!" It has been so great to have you both here. Thank you for being so generous playing your music for us. I really loved hearing it. Thank you so much.
FULKS: Thank you, Terry.
LEWIS: Oh, thank you.
FULKS: It was a great pleasure.
LEWIS: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis, recorded in our studio in September. Their new album is called "Wild! Wild! Wild!" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.