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Uncle Tupelo Taps Both Vintage Country and Punk Rock for a Winning Sound. The Band from Belleville, Ill., has a Loose, Spontaneous Sound.

Steve MacQueen

Tallahassee Democrat, February 4, 1994

Belleville, Ill., is the hometown of tennis player Jimmy Connors, TV actor Buddy Ebsen and even hack entertainment journalist Steve MacQueen, who lived in the Southern Illinois town and attended Belle Valley Elementary School for three years (grades 2-4) in the early '70s.

I was a little young for a critical appraisal, but my sister - 10 years older and a Belleville East High School grad - provided some perspective on Belleville.

``It was the worst place I ever lived,'' she said via telephone from Philadelphia. ``There is nothing to do there. Ever. It's ugly, flat and boring. My high-school colors were black and brown.''

Now that's dull.

But Belleville has provided some fireworks lately in the form of Uncle Tupelo, an alternative-rock act that somehow stumbled onto a cache of vintage country 78s and hasn't been the same since the first strains of Ernest Tubb filled their practice room.

Uncle Tupelo's latest record, ``Anodyne,'' is a completely winning effort, featuring the best writing that guitarist Jay Farrar and bassist Jeff Tweedy have done. The songs are frank, clever and funny, while the rustic arrangements, complete with pedal steel, fiddle and dobro, add texture to the tunes.

The disc's loose feel has a lot to do with the fact that each song was recorded totally live with no overdubs whatsoever.

``There's always going to be a certain spontaneous quality when you record live,'' said Farrar over the phone from St. Louis, 30 miles from Belleville. ``There's also going to be some mistakes that are left in, which become part of the song at that point.''

The band sounds unique. Farrar gives some of the credit for that to Belleville itself.

``Early on, living there probably provoked some feelings of isolation,'' he conceded. ``But to play music, you pretty much had to go to St. Louis.''

Don't get the feeling that ``Anodyne'' is contemporary country, by any means. Its musical roots are sunk deep in the past, conjuring up ghosts of the Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard rather than Garth and Clint.

And, as you might expect from a band that's recorded tributes to both Minutemen-leader, punk-rock icon D. Boon and the Roy Acuff-Fred Rose country-music publishing team, there's a balance at work here.

In fact, the record isn't really country at all. Farrar and Tweedy draw on those rich sources but their songwriting comes from your basic, post-modern rock 'n' roll, singer-songwriter perspective. They're also quite capable of strapping on the electric guitars, cranking up the amps and kicking out the jams, which they do impressively on ``We've Been Had'' and ``Chickamauga.''

One of the treats of ``Anodyne'' is ``Give Back the Key to My Heart,'' written by and performed with Doug Sahm, former leader of the fine '60s outfit The Sir Douglas Quintet. Sahm, now a member of the Texas Tornadoes, hooked up with the band through happy accident.

``We both happened to be at the Hotel Phoenix in Boston,'' Farrar chuckled. ``The night before we were listening to his stuff. The next morning we wake up and there's this loud guy in the lobby. It's Doug.''

In order to recreate the sounds of ``Anodyne,'' Uncle Tupelo, the trio (with Ken Coomer on drums), is now Uncle Tupelo, the quintet. Fiddle-mandolin-banjo-dobro-lap steel player Max Johnston and guitarist-bassist John Stirrat, both of whom played on the record, have stepped in to flesh out the live sound.

Jeff, Ken and Jay of Uncle Tupelo. They play Thursday at the Cow Haus.
Memo: Uncle Tupelo plays the Cow Haus Thursday night at 9 with Creamsicle. Tickets are $6 in advance (available at Vinyl Fever), $7 at the door.

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