Veteran roots rockers team up for irreverent duo album ‘Wild! Wild! Wild!’

Chicago songwriter Robbie Fulks had been a fan of Linda Gail Lewis since the 1970s, when the Louisiana-born musician would sing duets with her brother, Jerry Lee Lewis. Then, about 10 years ago, Fulks happened to meet Linda while working with the same promoter in Sweden. The two hit it off, and soon they were collaborating.

“We did a duet on ‘I Am a Pilgrim,' on her gospel record, in a little studio in Sweden. I was just pickin' the guitar and singing with her, and we went in cold. Of course we both knew the song since we were children, but we just started singing. We might have done two or three takes, but from the first time we sang together, it clicked,” Fulks said recently by phone. “Like a good dance partner, where one is the leader and the other one is expertly matching moves and following along, she permitted me to have a lot of expressive room in the duet from her years of practice with Van Morrison and Jerry Lee Lewis and people like that. It was a pleasure for me.”

Fulks pitched the idea of producing a record by Lewis, who accepted, and over time it turned into a duo record, Wild! Wild! Wild!, released last month on Bloodshot Records. Fulks wrote some of the tunes specifically for Lewis, and the record incorporates rockabilly, gospel and the neo-classic country sound Fulks has perfected on recent albums (particularly 2016's Upland Stories).

“This ain't an old-folks reunion/This ain't a Johnny Cash song,” Lewis sings on Wild's leadoff track, “Round Too Long,” hinting at the pair's fresh take on country music. “The key is not to be pious about it, because the original music is not pious. It's youthful. It's kick-ass. It's irreverent. What's more irreverent than early Jerry Lee Lewis music?” Fulks said. “So to do a replay of that style, where you're being very careful not to tread on anyone's sensitivities or say anything that's provocative, that's totally counter to the fundamental nature of that music.”

While Lewis' vocal and piano talents are prodigious, Fulks said his main takeaway from playing music with Lewis is her attitude. “A little earlier this week we had a gig that made me melancholy because not everything went right. It wasn't a catastrophe or anything, but I was feeling down about it afterwards, and she was feeling really up about it,” he said. “In that mismatch of reactions, I understood that my attitude was too preemptively melancholy about things. She came out of the gig smiling and saying, ‘That was wonderful. I felt great. They loved us. I looked around and saw people smiling and dancing.' And a lot of that was objectively true. She's a very positive, joyful person and programmatically happy. I think that's a great lesson for me.”