A transplanted southerner who now lives in Chicago, Robbie Fulks can write and sing country songs better than many of Nashville's big-name stars. So why have most people never heard of him? The answer may be that Fulks is too clever for his own good. Or at least too clever for labels that don't want to toy with proven formulas. He once wrote a song, "[Expletive] This Town" that pretty much said all he needed to say about the Nashville industry.

In front of a rowdy crowd at Iota Monday night, the tall Richie Cunningham sorta look-alike played a slew of his smart-alecky songs like "Let's Kill Saturday Night," "I Told Her Lies" and the vicious "Countrier Than Thou," a slam on poseurs who think that putting on a cowboy hat and a southern accent suddenly makes them country. There was also the hilarious "Cigarette State," a backhanded tribute to his childhood home of North Carolina.

Like Roger Miller a few decades ago, Fulks injects humor and satire into his songs. And he also insists on playing complex country music. Or, some might argue, country music with a complex. Occasionally it does seem like he's trying just a little too hard to let you know how smart he is.

Because he's so good at coming up with odder, darker, funnier songs, it's easy to overlook how brilliant he is when he just plays it straight. It's a bit like when the class clown suddenly wants to be taken seriously. But Fulks pulled it off with the beautiful new number "Take Us In," a soulful tale of homelessness that was moving without being maudlin. And his weepy opener, "Tears Only Run One Way," should be a country music staple.

With his fine three-piece band, Fulks also honored some clear influences by including covers of Johnny Paycheck's "The Lovin' Machine" and Bill Anderson's "Cocktails." It all made for a terrific night of country music -- even without Nashville's stamp of approval.

-- Joe Heim