Are You Ready For The Country?

By Daniel Durchholz
November 1993 issue of Request

With a major-label recording contract in their back pockets and their fourth album, Anodyne, just released, Uncle Tupelo principals Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy apparently feel certain enough about their rock and roll futures to kick back and enjoy their ascending industry status. What have they done to celebrate? Bought houses? New cars? Have they gone to Disney World? Well, not exactly.

Farrar did just spend some time in Mexico poking around some Mayan ruins, but the duo's prized new possession could hardly be considered an extravagance, given the sweltering heat and humidity of the long Midwestern summer. It's a window air conditioner, something the pair has lived without for too long in their ramshackle Belleville, Illinois apartment, and something they couldn't afford until recently. Oh, and Tweedy did buy a car. It's a Toyota Corolla, a magnificent testament to modern automotive engineering considering it still runs straight down the road despite having it's entire right side caved in, the aftermath of some horrendous accident. Tweedy paid all of $300 for it.

"Well," Farrar says, "the good thing is that nobody can break into it if they can't open the doors."

Obviously, success and its outward manifestations seem the furthest things from Farrar's and Tweedy's minds. If anything, they're happy just to have made it to a level where they no longer have to take day jobs between recording sessions and tours. Seated at a table in Cicero's basement bar, the St. Louis night spot where Uncle Tupelo first gained a devoted following, they prefer to talk about their country-music heroes, the importance of spontaneity in music, and the road they've traveled thus far. Tweedy, his shoulder-length hair tucked up under a baseball cap, sips a Pepsi, and stuffs his lower lip full of Renegades chewing tobacco. Farrar, who's keeping his facial-hair options open by sporting a week's growth of beard as well as a further-developed goatee, orders coffee. New drummer Ken Coomer, who's been with the band since January, lives in Nashville and is not present for the interview.

When we first started out, the crowds we got here at Cicero's were pretty irrelevant in terms of numbers," Tweedy says. "The cool thing about playing a place like this was that we got a certain amount of appreciation from the people who worked here and got to be friends with them."

"Coming from Belleville [25 miles southeast of St. Louis], that was a validation of sorts," Farrar says.

In addition to doing some of the hippest booking in town - everything from Eugene Chadbourne to Jimmie Dale Gilmore - Cicero's has helped to engender the local scene by regularly booking St. Louis-area bands that play original music. There is a downside to playing the club, though. The tiny L-shaped room boasts stone walls and a low ceiling, leaving much to be desired in terms of sound quality. Worse, the postage-stamp size stage has a support beam planted squarely in its middle, providing a substantial hazard for even marginally kinetic performers such as Farrar and Tweedy. "We've knocked a few guitars out of tune because of that thing, Tweedy says. - "Or in tune, I suppose."

As the band's reputation grew on the basis of three albums released on the independent Rockville label - No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20, 1992 - to say nothing of numerous tours of the United States - and Europe, Uncle Tupelo's St. Louis gigs have moved elsewhere. But the group still maintains a degree of allegiance to Cicero's, playing there once or twice a year in the guise of its alter ego, Coffee Creek, an all-country cover band featuring original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn and the band's former guitar tech and occasional second guitarist, Brian Henneman, now of the Bottle Rockets; "Coffee Creek pretty much exists so we can screw around and do whatever comes into our heads," Farrar says. "The idea is to learn a bunch of songs and, at the same time, not be self-conscious about what you're doing. It's more like when you're first starting out and you're trying to learn stuff. So you actually get a bit more accomplished instrumentally."

"It's really good to step back and learn a bunch of other people's songs," Tweedy adds. "The discipline of it presents us with less pressure and a lot of pressure at the same time. It's kind of a challenge."

Such discipline has paid off on Uncle Tupelo's recordings, on which the band handles sharp stylistic shifts from the feedback-soaked thrash that dominated much of No Depression and Still Feel Gone to the acoustic-driven folk of March 16-20, 1992. Both extremes are visited on Anodyne, "The Long Cut" and "Chickamauga" - being examples of the former, and "Slate," "Steal the Crumbs," and "High Water," leaning toward the latter. What's startling, though, is the preponderance of traditional-country sounds on the album: Weeping steel guitars, sprightly fiddles, and down-home harmonies are prominent in the mix on "Acuff-Rose," "No Sense in Lovin'," "Anodyne," and "Give Back the Key to My Heart," which features a guest vocal by the song's author, Texas Tornado Doug Sahm.

"A large part of our country sound is having more people to play with and accompany us," Farrar says "There's only a finite number of things you can do with a three piece. Having guys like [pedal-steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, guitarist/bassist John Stirratt, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston] enables us to go in that direction. Actually, the record came out more rock than I thought it would. Jeff and I worked on the songs together before we worked with everybody else, and it seemed like it was gonna be a pretty quiet album, like March. But it's not really."

"A lot of it has to do with what we're listening to also," Tweedy says.

"Mostly old stuff, '50s, '60s country: Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Buck Owens," Farrar explains. "A lot of those guys were pretty subversive characters as far as their personal politics go. Also a lot of that music, the way it was recorded, it has a real quality that you just can't find anywhere else. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a more fucked-up character than Hank Williams. Merle Haggard, too. That's the kind of music we respond to for some reason."

"It's real," Tweedy says. "There weren't any Branson dinner theaters in the '50s. But there is some new stuff that we like. There's a lot of female artists that are beginning to make country music sound more like it should these days, like Iris DeMent, Kelly Willis, and Carlene Carter. Kelly Willis is like Dwight Yoakam in a way. She's pretty slick, but she has a real authentic-sounding voice. As for the rest, it seems like they tried for a long time to market all this new-traditional country, but all of that is pretty fuckin' horrible. Doug Sahm said it best: 'Most of those guys look like WWF wrestlers.'"

Anodyne's ragged-but-right sound can also be attributed to its being recorded in just two weeks, live in the studio with no overdubs. Brian Paulson, who's 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," Tweedy says.

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

"Which is totally the opposite of what we do," Tweedy says. "We're a live band, a working band. This record was 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," he continues. "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 look at each other and crack up "There's some subliminal clams in there, most definitely, low in the mix," Farrar says.

"Sun Ra?" Tweedy agrees.

Neither Farrar nor Tweedy is particularly comfortable discussing lyrics. Regarding the album's ominous-sounding opening track, "Slate," with its references to "workin' in the halls of shame," Farrar demurs, "I don't know if I can help you there. The songs, they change in meaning for us as well, and sometimes the meaning people interpret the songs as having are better than our intent."

Fair enough. But some of the tracks are considerably less oblique. "Chickamauga," for example, is a hard-rocking kiss-off tune that takes its name from a Civil War battlefield in Georgia. "Acuff Rose" explores the simple but elegant idea that a favorite song is as comforting a companion as a friend or lover. And the title track, a wistful song full of unspecified longing, takes its name right out of the dictionary. "It's a kind of nonspecific term for a painkiller," Farrar says.

"I looked it up," Tweedy seconds.

The inspiration for the slow shuffle "New Madrid" was the hysteria created a couple of years back by pseudo-scientist Iben Browning, who predicted an apocalyptic earthquake along the fault line that takes its name from that small southern Missouri town. The quake, of course, never happened. "Ironically, the town has really grown in population since then," Farrar says. "People went there and decided it was a good place to live, and there's been this huge influx of people."

As for the seemingly nonsensical "We've Been Had," Tweedy says, "That song is about a 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 liked, 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 adds. "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."

"There's a lot of Nirvana in that song to me, I guess," Tweedy continues. "They seem like they're afraid of having their cover blown. The whole Steve Albini thing seems like overcompensation. But this is all ridiculous to me, because it's just lyrics in a rock song. It's not a big statement."

Happily, Farrar and Tweedy are more content finishing up the day's discussion by talking about their collaboration with Doug Sahm and a pair of recent side projects for the band. "He's a tour de force of humanity," Farrar says. "He's just on like 24 hours a day."

"A pretty good insight into what he's about is that little thing he says at the beginning of the track we do with him," Tweedy interrupts, before Farrar picks up the story.

"He just says, 'OK, let's really nail it on this one - ready guys?" I didn't really notice that he said anything until we heard it back for like the third time, and I said, 'What is that? Roll that back!'"

"It's cool," Tweedy says. "We never thought we would get him. It seemed like such a long shot. I mean, he's like Neil Young to us." Uncle Tupelo has also recorded tracks for a pair of unrelated projects, the No Alternative AlDS-research benefit album, and Conmemoritivo: A Tribute to Gram Parsons. As regards their involvement with No Alternative, Tweedy is direct. "It just seemed like the right thing to do. The album is for AIDS education, which is really important 'cause it affects everybody. Doing 'Effigy' [a Creedence Clearwater number that pointedly asks, "Who're we burning in effigy?"] was just kind of a coincidence. We've been doing that track live for some time now, and this seemed like a more logical place to put it than our record."

The Parsons tribute is a natural fit for the band, which recorded "Sin City" as an early B-side and obviously takes much of its country-rock sensibility from Parsons' efforts with the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds. The group performs the International Submarine Band's "Blue Eyes" on the album. Asked about Parsons' influence on Uncle Tupelo, Farrar smiles. "I liked his Nudie suits. He was a snazzy dresser. If you ever see Sneeky Pete Kleinow, tell him he had the best suit of all, the one with the pterodactyl. There would definitely be some interest in purchasing that from him."

The next day, Farrar and Tweedy are in their apartment, listening to the recently released box set of Alan Lomax field recordings, Sounds of the South. The place is pretty much the glorious mess that you'd expect. Pizza cartons are piled high on the landing outside, dishes in the sink, and albums and CDs are strewn about. A kitchen wall features the visages of George Bush and Missouri Senator Kit Bond impaled on a dart board. The refrigerator, of all things, offers some insight into the pair, suggesting that the hard-drinking days that inspired such early anthems as "l Got Drunk" and "Whiskey Bottle" are but a hazy memory: It's stocked with Nitro cola and O'Doul's non-alcoholic beer.

The front room is full of amplifiers and guitars, many of which also grace the cover of Anodyne. A red, white, and blue drum set sits piled in a corner. A blanket is draped across the doorway to the next room, keeping the air-conditioned cool and bluesy tunes within.

Outside lies Belleville, a small town whose population mostly works at nearby Scott Air Force Base, in agriculture, or in small manufacturing companies, such as one local business that supplied combat boots worn by the troops of Desert Storm. Originally a coal-mining town, part of Belleville is actually built over abandoned mines. "There are subdivisions that are sinking," Farrar says with a mixture of horror and amusement. "I bet they won't tell you that down at the Chamber of Commerce."

Like any town that withstood the '80s, Belleville has had its share of hard times. Miners just south of the area are currently on strike against Peabody Coal. Various industries have shut down in recent years, not the least of which was the Stag Brewery, right up the block from Farrar and Tweedy's apartment. (Another early Uncle Tupelo number was the punkish "I Drink Stag," the entire lyrical content of which is, "I drink Stag/I drink Stag/l drink Stag/Yaaaaaahhhhh!")

"Actually, the brewery closing down impacted this neighborhood right here pretty seriously," Farrar says. "It's the kind of neighborhood where everybody hangs out on the streets now."

"They don't have air conditioning, or if they do, they can't afford to run it," Tweedy says, "so everybody's out at like 11 or 12 midnight." He adds with mock horror, "l smelled pot in our parking lot last night!"

Belleville's hard times have found their way into the band's lyrics, and songs like "Grindstone" and "Factory Belt" chronicle the desperation of individuals worn down by the system and looking for a quick way out. "Graveyard Shift," the first song on their first album, opens with the lines, "Hometown, same town blues/Same old walls closin' in." Understandably, such perceived criticisms of the community have not gone unnoticed.

"When the Texas Instruments stayed here the other week," Tweedy says. "They went to the Moto Mart, and two of them came back up and said, 'Hey, there's some cops down there giving Steve [their drummer] a hard time.' I went down there, and it was [a cop] who lived across the street from my parents. He was my Little League coach. So I went down there and said, 'Hey. I know these guys, they're just staying here.' Then this other cop car pulls up and says, 'Hey, are you guys Uncle Tupelo? Do you really mean those things you say about Belleville?' He was just confused as to why we would say anything bad about the city. He was like, 'But you played ball here.' Well, , but that was when I was like eight."

"I told him, 'Hey, we still live here.' That says as much as you need to know about how we feel about this town."

(Thanks to Mark Janovec for sending this in.)

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)