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Life's All Right; Uncle Tupelo Kicks Back, Adds Acoustic Touch and Sings Great Songs

Bill Eichenberger

Columbus Dispatch, March 1, 1994

Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne is Murphy's law set to gorgeous American roots music, though Jeff Tweedy should be excused if he doesn't see it that way.

''I never looked at the characters in our songs as having low expectations or anything,'' the group's bassist and co-songwriter said recently.

''But I guess I'd have to admit, most of the people we've met along the way, even people you think are set in life and happy, they still feel like they're just getting by.''

Tweedy and his songwriting partner, Jay Farrar, sum up that sentiment nicely on Chickamauga: ''A miracle might point the way.

Some folks shoot for the moon and fall apart at the seams. Uncle Tupelo's characters simply aim to get by, like the unvanquished narrator of Acuff-Rose who confesses: ''Early in the morning, sometimes late at night.

Not great. Not good. Just all right.

''All you really need is for things to be all right, don't you?'' Tweedy asked. ''Sometimes things are tough, and just making it through is worth something.''

Anodyne is defined as ''relieving or lessening pain; soothing.'' Tweedy and Farrar weren't being ironic when they chose it to title their debut effort with Warner Bros. Records.

''I don't think it's a depressing album,'' Tweedy said.

It's not. Anodyne is a near-perfect balance of acoustic and electric, country and rock, folk and rock that features distorted guitars on the one hand; banjo, mandolin and fiddle on the other.

Uncle Tupelo started as a thrashy power trio: Farrar, Tweedy and a drummer. The group released No Depression (1990) and Still Feel Gone (1991) on the tiny Rockville Records label, garnering praise in the Village Voice and Trouser Press Record Guide.

''But we never considered ourselves a punk band by any stretch of the imagination,'' Tweedy said. ''We liked loud amps and distortion, and we grew up on Black Flag, but we also covered a Carter Family song on No Depression.''

In 1992, the band released its quietest album, March 16-20. Though it sold more than the previous two albums combined, Rockville Records was displeased; the company thought it had signed a punk band and wound up with something else.

''Yeah, well, we won't talk about that,'' Tweedy said, ''except to say they weren't very happy with us or March.

''But to us it was a natural progression. Nobody thought it was strange when we released a mostly electric album. So we never could figure out why they thought it was strange we'd put out a mostly acoustic one.''

March attracted many new Uncle Tupelo fans, but Tweedy said the group resisted playing songs from the album during an ensuing tour of small rock 'n' roll clubs.

''We played a lot of the old punk clubs that we'd played in the early days, and it would have been suicide to go in with a couple of acoustic guitars and play the songs from March.

''I mean, we had some people writing us saying, 'Ditch the fiddle. You guys suck now.' ''

Tweedy and Farrar responded to such critics on Anodyne with a plea for open-mindedness. We've Been Had begins: ''There's a gih-tar leanin' on a Marshall stack.

What's important, Tweedy said, isn't necessarily what's cool or new.

In Acuff-Rose, the band's tribute to the famed country-music publishing company, Tweedy and Farrar detail the force of great songs: ''Name me a song that everybody knows.

''We really do feel the songs are the most important thing of all,'' Tweedy said. ''That's why we recorded Anodyne live in the studio - so the songs could sound as close to the first time we heard them played right.

''And I don't mean right as in all the notes in the right place. I mean 'Does it sound good?'''

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