the unofficial uncle tupelo archives 

A Musical Mix Uncle Tupelo is a Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock 'N' Roll

Mark Morrison

Roanoke Times, February 18, 1994

When drummer Ken Coomer joined Uncle Tupelo a year ago he had to switch snare drums.

His old one was too loud.

That may seem odd, given that Uncle Tupelo is primarily a loud rock band. But on closer look, maybe it isn't so odd, given that Uncle Tupelo also embraces the quieter side of country and folk music.

Uncle Tupelo will play tonight at the South Main Cafe in Blacksburg.

The group has often been described as Hank-Williams-meets-punk-thrash - a label the band dismisses as generic and meaningless, Coomer said in a telephone interview. He couldn't come up with a better description, however.

But somewhere between lonesome and sonic is about right.

Either way, when Coomer joined Uncle Tupelo a year ago, he was asked to dump the snare.

"And with my hearing slowing going away, I agreed," he said.

Coomer, 33, had been the drummer for the post-punk outfit Clockhammer, a decidedly more abrasive - and louder - band than Uncle Tupelo. Clockhammer split up about the same time that Uncle Tupelo's original drummer, Mike Heidorn, left the group to live the more stable life at home with his wife.

Looking for a new band, Coomer arranged a tryout. He had heard of Uncle Tupelo, but he said he really wasn't familiar with the group's music. So, he bought the band's three albums and learned all the songs by playing along with the tracks on his drum kit.

He has no idea how many other drummers also auditioned.

"I'm not sure I want to know," he said.

Meanwhile, the group was preparing to record its fourth album, "Anodyne," the follow-up to "March 16-20, 1992," which was a breakthrough critical hit for the band. Coomer arrived in time to get in on the recording.

Uncle Tupelo is fronted by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, who formed the band in Belleville, Ill., their hometown about 30 miles southeast of St. Louis. Coomer, who is from Nashville, described Belleville as a working-class factory town.

"I wouldn't say dead."

But he wouldn't say it was thriving either - economically, culturally or otherwise.

"What you see is what it is," he said.

It is this backdrop that is credited with inspiring Farrar and Tweedy's musical bent. Their songs are filled with the images of small-town despair and heartbreak, and with people who seek relief most often at the corner bar.

Theirs is a bleak world, but it rings arrestingly true - and without stereotyping.

This authenticity sometimes throws listeners, given the youth of Farrar and Tweedy. Both are in their 20s. Yet, they write as if they have endured a longer, more tempered life. Coomer said this reflects their hometown roots.

"They were raised in that setting."

Farrar's parents run a family business in Belleville. Tweedy's family are railroad people, Coomer said. His father, by contrast, is a certified public accountant and former musician who toured for years in Pat Boone's road band.

It is ironic to him now, he said, that Uncle Tupelo is considered almost fringe country.

"I'd say we're definitely half country," he said.

Growing up in Nashville, Coomer rejected the music of his hometown. "When you're 14 or 15, you try to get away from what's obvious," he explained. So, he embraced Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. "As anti- as I could go."

Now, Uncle Tupelo includes in its lineup Max Johnston, who adds the traditional sounds of the fiddle, mandolin and steel guitar to the mix. "We sound more like a jug band now," Coomer said.

He also counts among his favorite albums one of his father's old George Jones records. Farrar and Tweedy often cite Merle Haggard and Ernest Tubb and other country legends as strong inspiration.

These influences came clearly to the surface with "March 16-20, 1992," the group's third album, which was an acoustic switch from the band's previous two efforts. Those albums rocked loud, somewhat shrouding the songs underneath.

With "March 16-20, 1992," produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, the band stripped away much of its sonic thrashing, revealing the songs more for what they are - straightforward folk and country.

On "Anodyne," the latest album - "It's a generic term for painkiller," Coomer explained - the band blends some of its earlier crunch with the acoustic subtlety of "March 16-20, 1992." Still, what comes through again are the songs.

As they should, Coomer said, whether the music is sonic, lonesome or what.

"When you strip away all the fluff, it's still the songs.

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