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Uncle Tupelo Mines Rock's Country Vein

Parry Gettelman

The Orlando Sentinel, February 4, 1994

Uncle Tupelo usually winds up in the alternative-rock category. However, the band certainly doesn't belong in the same bin as Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, Counting Crows and all the other corporate rockers marketed to teens and twentysomethings.

Uncle Tupelo has more in common with the likes of Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Joe Ely and X. None of these sound particularly similar, but all of them have found ways to mine the rich country vein running through rock 'n' roll. (Uncle Tupelo will perform at the Downtown Jazz & Blues Club in Orlando Wednesday.)

Guitarist Jay Farrar and bassist Jeff Tweedy formed Uncle Tupelo in the mid-'80s in their hometown, Belleville, Ill., some 30 miles southeast of St. Louis, Mo. Belleville didn't have much of a music scene, which was probably to the band's advantage, Tweedy said in a phone interview from Chicago.

''What little scene there was was easy to ignore. That's the worst thing to do, pay too much attention to what other bands are doing,'' Tweedy said. ''It seems to be a real problem on a local level almost anywhere. It's easy to get preoccupied with what everyone else has or doesn't have or what they're doing and what they're saying. More often than not, it doesn't have anything to do with music.

''I'll get off my little soap box now,'' he concluded with a laugh.

Tweedy doesn't have much patience with artists who show more calculation than creativity, whether it be the growing hordes of Pearl Jam clones or Nashville's crop of so-called ''New Traditionalists.''

''Give me a break - I don't know what that is,'' Tweedy said. ''It doesn't sound traditional!''

Tweedy's own tastes range far afield. You won't necessarily hear echoes of the Shaggs, Nick Cave or Skip Spence in Uncle Tupelo's sound. But you can hear the pure love of music that leads Tweedy off on sudden conversational tangents (hey, ever hear that wild Beat on the Traps compilation?) and causes him to exclaim over favorites such as the Bottle Rockets, a band that includes a former guitar tech/ sideman of Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy's most recent box-set binges include the Bear Family's reissue of country harmonizers the Louvin Brothers and ''the best box ever,'' Sounds of the South, a collection of Alan Lomax's field recordings of folk and blues artists.

''I'm thanking God for this whole reissuing phenomenon of CDs,'' Tweedy said. ''Now people can afford to get this incredible library of stuff way cheaper than the cost of going to find the original records - it's not the same, not as much fun, but it's a lot easier.''

Uncle Tupelo began forging its own path with its first album, 1990's No Depression, on the independent Rockville label. The band combined thrash and a little twang in songs that chronicled life in a dead-end town. The group, including original drummer Mike Heidorn, also covered a gospel song by country pioneers the Carter Family.

The country elements became even more pronounced on Uncle Tupelo's third album for Rockville, the mostly acoustic March 16-20, 1992, which was produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. On the new Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo's major-label debut, country and rock influences bump comfortably against each other on tracks such as the country-folk-flavored ''Acuff-Rose,'' electrically charged ''We've Been Had'' and feedback-ridden ''Chickamauga.''

Tweedy doesn't see any big stylistic evolution over the course of his band's four albums:

''There's never been anything conscious from our perspective. That's what we've been doing for a long time - we've just been recorded differently.''

For Anodyne, the band chose to record live in the studio without overdubs. That was basically what they had done on March 16-20. Anodyne is more of a rock album, but Tweedy said the band tried not to use gimmicks, such as excessive chunks of feedback.

''We were just more doing what we thought fit the songs, letting the songs just be songs as opposed to batches of sounds,'' Tweedy said.

In order to record live with a broader instrumental palette, Tweedy, Farrar and new drummer Ken Coomer worked with guitarist-bassist John Stirrat, pedal steel ace Lloyd Maines and Max Johnston on mandolin, fiddle, lap steel, banjo and dobro. Doug Sahm appears on a cover of his own ''Give Back the Key to My Heart.''

The touring version of Uncle Tupelo now includes Stirrat and Johnston, who is Michelle Shocked's brother. When Uncle Tupelo toured with Shocked last year, Johnston wound up riding in its van and bunking with the band members and subsequently ended up on the roster. Tweedy said Johnston is the only person he had ever met who really, as far as he could ascertain, had never listened to rock music - only country and folk. Johnston seems a little sensitive on that subject, but Uncle Tupelo found it refreshing.

''It was really kind of interesting to watch him get turned on to a lot of stuff we thought was really cool and having him play stuff with us from a totally different perspective. . . . I think his parts are really fresh because of that. It seems like on the record, all the things he did, it's coming from someplace I'm not really aware exists.''

This time out, Uncle Tupelo chose a Minneapolis producer, Brian Paulson, who had recorded Unrest and former Replacement Slim Dunlap. They recorded at Cedar Creek Recording in Austin, Texas.

''That place just seemed really kind of homey and small and cheap and had a really good old mixing board, things like that that we were looking for,'' Tweedy said. ''They didn't have a big, glossy promo package they sent out with, like, pictures of a Jacuzzi and sauna and stuff. We didn't want any of those distractions. We didn't want anything so nice all the record-company people would want to visit us and go swimming.''

Tweedy and Farrar divide up the vocal duties on Anodyne. These days, each generally writes his own lyrics - although Tweedy doesn't believe in ''writing'' lyrics, at least not ''down.''

''I don't write anything down, actually - never,'' Tweedy said. ''When you write stuff down, it always seems to start becoming really contrived, premeditated. When you remember it and sing it, then it's not. Then it evolves and changes. If you tape it and listen to it a year later, the lyrics have changed a lot although you don't even really think you have changed them.''

The band takes a similarly spontaneous approach to recording.

''The way it's worked the last couple records, Jay and I write separately, and then about a week before we go to record, we get together and play songs for each other, pick the ones to work out and finish together,'' Tweedy said. ''Then we show them to the band and record them as soon as possible, as quickly after we figure out the arrangement as possible. . . . When they're just being worked out, and the first time you play it right, the first time you really get the song across - you ideally like to record that version because that's the most direct, and everyone's feeling it. That's the creation of it. Whereas later, if you play the song for a year, you know you did, like, one really good version of it sometime, it must've been six months ago - and you're really frustrated you can't get that on tape in the studio.''

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday. Where: Downtown Jazz & Blues Club, 54 N. Orange Ave., Orlando.
What it costs: $8 at Park Avenue CD, East/West and Bad Mood record stores.
Also: 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Florida Theatre, 233 W. University Ave., Gainesville; tickets $6.

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