the unofficial uncle tupelo archives 

Uncle Tupelo Goes Back to the Country

Daniel Durchholz

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 3, 1993

Musical trends don't mean much to Uncle Tupelo principals Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, but the pair have shown an uncanny ability to stay ahead of them.

The Belleville band's first two albums, "No Depression" and "Still Feel Gone," featured lots of raucous, grungy rock that preceded the massive success of Nirvana, the quintessential grunge band. And on its third album, "March 16-20, 1992," Uncle Tupelo played "unplugged" well before the idea occurred to Eric Clapton or Rod Stewart.

With its latest album, "Anodyne," which is scheduled for release on Tuesday, Uncle Tupelo is headed for the country. But it's not the chart-dominating, radio-ready pablum of Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus and Brooks & Dunn that has inspired the band, but rather the traditional sounds of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb and Merle Haggard - household names, perhaps, but not in the alternative-rock-dominated circles traveled by bands such as Uncle Tupelo.

"A large part of our country sound is having more people to play with and accompany us," said Farrar, sipping coffee at a table in Cicero's Basement Bar along with Tweedy. "There's only a finite number of things you can do with a three-piece."

"Anodyne," the group's first effort for the Warner Bros. label, has the basic Uncle Tupelo lineup of Farrar on guitar and vocals, Tweedy on bass and vocals, and Ken Coomer (who joined the band in January) on drums. But they're accompanied by pedal-steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, guitarist/bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, adding a new dimension to such Farrar/Tweedy compositions as "Slate," "Acuff-Rose" and "No Sense in Lovin'." Country rocker Doug Sahm also appears on the album, playing guitar and singing on his song "Give Back the Key to My Heart."

"A lot of what we're doing now has to do with what we're listening to," said Tweedy. "Most old stuff, '50s, '60s country: Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Buck Owens."

Farrar says that he and Tweedy have found kindred spirits in traditional country music's more unconventional performers.

"A lot of those guys were pretty subversive as far as their personal politics go," he said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a more (messed)-up character than Hank Williams. Merle Haggard, too. That's just the kind of music we respond to for some reason."

"It's real," Tweedy added. "There weren't any Branson dinner theaters in the '50s.

"But there is some new stuff we like. There're a lot of female artists who are beginning to make country music sound a lot more like it should these days, like Iris DeMent, Kelly Willis and Carlene Carter. As for the rest, it seems like they tried for a long time to market all this stuff as new-traditional country, but all of that is pretty horrible. Doug Sahm said it best: 'Most of those guys look like WWF wrestlers.' "

The ragged-but-right sound that dominates "Anodyne" can largely be attributed to the album's being recorded in just two weeks, live in the studio with no overdubs. Brian Paulson, who has produced albums by Joe Henry, Slim Dunlap and Unrest, manned the boards at Cedar Creek Recording in Austin, Texas.

"What we wanted was a sound that was softer and rawer at the same time, if that makes any sense," said Tweedy.

"I guess in the long run," Farrar added, "it's a reaction against the way our first two albums were recorded, which was definitely the antithesis of live recording. It was just overdub over overdub."

"Which is totally the opposite of what we do," Tweedy continued. "We're a live band, a working band. This record is kind of a continuation of 'March' and everything we liked about recording like that. We just took it one step further, 'cause we did a few overdubs on that record.

"We thought, 'If we could just get people to play those parts in the first place, it wouldn't be necessary to do it afterward.' Just get the sounds and go to tape. And, sure, there might be things that you wish could be a little different. We never listened to the individual tracks until we mixed it, and we were amazed at some of the stuff that's actually on there."

They looked at each other and cracked up.

"There's some subliminal clams in there, most definitely, low in the mix," Farrar said.

"Sun Ra," Tweedy agreed obliquely.

For a pair who write songs that ring startlingly true, Farrar and Tweedy are extremely uncomfortable discussing their lyrics.

Asked for an explanation of the album's opening track, "Slate," Farrar rolled his eyes and said, "I don't know if I can help you there. The songs, they change in meaning for us as well, and sometimes the meanings people interpret them as having are better than our intent."

Fair enough. But some of the tracks are not particularly obscure.

"Chickamauga," one of the album's hardest-rocking tracks, takes the name of a Civil War battle and uses it as a metaphor for a broken relationship. "Acuff-Rose" explores the simple but elegant idea that a favorite song is as comforting a companion as a friend or lover. "New Madrid" was inspired by the hysteria caused a couple of years ago by pseudo-scientist Iben Browning's apocalyptic earthquake predictions. And the title track, a wistful song of unspecified longing, takes its name right out of the dictionary.

"It's a kind of nonspecific term for a pain-killer," Farrar said.

"I looked it up," Tweedy seconded.

As for the seemingly nonsensical "We've Been Had," Tweedy explained, "That song is about mistrust of anything, like rock 'n' roll in general. It's about growing older and finding out a lot of things you really believed in and really like, what actually happens to get that. A lot of bands I liked growing up, they were just an illusion."

"We can sort of see through the facade now," Farrar said. "A good example would be the Clash. We sort of did think they were a band that mattered, but in retrospect, it was all just show biz."

"But this (discussion) is all ridiculous to me," Tweedy said. "It's just lyrics in a rock song. It's not a big statement."

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