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Uncle Tupelo Blends Fiddles, Electric Guitars

Kenneth Johnson

Charlotte Observer, February 15, 1994

With achingly honest songs and clear musical vision, Uncle Tupelo is at the forefront of a batch of bands unafraid to let rural influences like country and folk music shine through in their rock.

This quiet revolution, with a guitar and distortion box in one hand and a fiddle in the other, might ultimately help shatter preconceived musical notions.

Uncle Tupelo guitarist-vocalist Jay Farrar makes it sound like no big deal.

``I guess it's just a reflection of what we listen to,'' a reserved and quiet Farrar said during a recent telephone interview.

The St. Louis-based band makes its first Charlotte appearance tonight, at the Pterodactyl club.

Country, blues and folk music ``have been around peripherally from friends and family. It's always been there,'' Farrar said of performers like Hank Williams and Leadbelly (whose ``John Hardy'' Uncle Tupelo covered on its first album).

``We've just been doing what we've been doing.''

What Uncle Tupelo has been doing - with increasing success - is this: Paving the way for a number of groups to incorporate rural influences into its rock. Other kindred bands include the Jayhawks, the Palace Brothers, Blue Mountain and the Dashboard Saviors (who visit Charlotte March 2).

Billboard magazine recently detailed the trend in a front-page story: ``Bands . . . are mixing rock's foundation of drums, electric guitar and bass with layers of acoustic guitars, fiddles, accordions and organ to create a sound alternately described as roots rock, country pop, country rock, Southern rock, or just plain American rock. The sound is not only winning the bands critical praise but also finding them an increasingly receptive audience.''

The new mix is found in Uncle Tupelo's excellent recent album ``Anodyne'' (Sire). It's a potent collection of rock songs, given a country feel thanks to acoustic instruments, Farrar and partner Jeff Tweedy's down-to-earth, inspired songwriting and a fresh, unpolished approach.

Admitting they listen to country and folk artists in the age of Nirvana is a daring move. Letting it into their music must have been difficult.

``In a way it's been more of a positive thing to incorporate because it can reach those people who lean more toward country music,'' Farrar said.

The band's philosophy is a simple one: ``We try to operate on a spontaneous level. Whatever gets written gets recorded. The key is to record an album that we like, one that we're happy with.''

Postpunk guitars

Uncle Tupelo blasted onto the scene in 1990 with the ``No Depression'' album, which was followed by 1991's masterful ``Still Feel Gone,'' both on Rockville Records. Both combined meaty, postpunk guitars that had a tendency to twang with down-and-out songs about lost loves and hitting the bottle (George Jones goes rock, maybe).

Its next album, ``March 16-20, 1992,'' produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, was an all-out acoustic affair featuring covers of traditional songs like ``Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down'' and similar-sounding originals.

``Anodyne'' combines both approaches for a major-label debut that's an uncompromising, unassuming infusion of fresh air in rock's sometimes stale atmosphere.

A fiddle jumps out to start ``Acuff-Rose'' while a plucked banjo anchors ``New Madrid.'' Meanwhile, ``Chickamauga'' and ``The Long Cut'' show the band - which grew from a trio to a five-piece for the album - hasn't ditched the raging, Replacements-sounding guitars.

There's been only one drawback.

``It's hard to get acoustic guitars to sound good on stage,'' Farrar said. ``But other than that, things have been going fine.''

Say Uncle
Who: Uncle Tupelo, with Joe Henry.
When: 9 p.m. today.
Where: Pterodactyl Club, 1600 Freedom Dr. (at Morehead Street).
Admission: $6.

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