Geffen Records has never been a bastion for the steel guitar, bouzouki, banjo or upright bass. But that may change with its recent signing of alternative-country artist Robbie Fulks.

The quirky, Chicago-based singer-songwriter’s 1996 debut album, “Country Love Songs,” produced by Steve Albini and the Skeletons’ Lou Whitney, made several year-end “best-of” lists, such as USA Today, Pulse! and Esquire. That and his latest Bloodshot Records album, “South Mouth” (released Oct. 7), convinced Geffen that it had found another diamond in the rough.

“Geffen doesn’t even have a Nashville office,” Fulks said recently. “Its non-country status and the fact that there’s nobody else on their roster like me is more attractive.”

Fulks, who heads into the studio for Geffen in early 1998, could become the Beck of neotraditionalists.

“I like that folky stuff Beck used to do,” Fulks said, “but it seems so remote from anything in the world. And the way that he’s been able to walk that line is something I want to try to follow myself. I have a hard-core, very small fan base right now that I’m worried about alienating by doing something too adulterated. Beck has managed to do both at the same time.”

Knowing that several labels were interested, Fulks said he asserted himself during negotiations with Geffen, winning several concessions.

“I didn’t want to make the same record over and over again,” he said. “I wanted freedom to branch out in different directions. They, for instance, have let me do a one-off album of hard-core country, which I’m going to start working on pretty soon and get it out to Sugar Hill or HighTone. I kept thinking as we negotiated that this is what I really wanted to do, besides getting sucked into this vortex of big money spending, and that was one of the ideas I came up with.”

For now, Fulks fans can’t get enough of his bawdy humor and roadhouse aura. On “South Mouth,” he takes listeners through several twists and turns (from the chilling “Cold Statesville Ground” to the bittersweet “Heart, I Wish You Were Here”), each time stirring up an infectiously amiable spirit.

A native of York, Pa., the 34-year-old Fulks grew up in Virginia and North Carolina listening to bluegrass and folk music but didn’t appreciate it until he moved to Chicago.

“It hit me about ’89 or ’90, at the right point in my life,” he said. “I had just separated from the mother of my kid, and I was kind of out on my own and going through hard times. I met this guy who was playing in a bluegrass band in Chicago and he introduced me to a lot of stuff I hadn’t heard before. I’ve been hooked ever since.”