Heart of the Country

By Jason Fine
Option Magazine, Nov/Dec 1993

As an old George Jones CD plays on a boombox, Uncle Tupelo's Jay Farrar, in a rare talkative spell, begins to bemoan the decline of mainstream country music. "Country was always around when we were growing up," he says. "We'd hear it through our parents, at family gatherings and stuff. But the definition of country we're talking about is definitely not the contemporary Nashville sound."

"What we used to hear sounded more like this stuff," adds Farrar's friend and partner, Jeff Tweedy, nodding towards the speakers, "or Hank Williams - late '50s and early 60s country. The stuff going on now doesn't have much to do with that anymore. There's something wrong when Garth Brooks lists one of his main inspirations as Journey."

Twenty-five miles east of St Louis, the city of Belleville, Illinois, is a quiet, mostly white, blue-collar suburb many years past its industrial prime. The road into town passes by crumbling brick factories, freight cars rusting on abandoned tracks, and the former Stag Brewery headquarters - a block-long building now plastered with "For Sale" signs. Further along, ornate turn-of-the-century storefronts are dwarfed by crass, neon-lit, 24 hour gas stations and fast-food outlets. All over Belleville, the only thing you see more of than churches are bars.

Two blocks off Main Street, in a neighborhood of modest brick houses and vacant lots grown over waist-high with wild grass, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy share a rambling eight-room flat near the center of town. Inside, the plaster is chipping off the walls. Blankets hang over open doorways. Pizza boxes, 12-pack cartons, and crushed cans of off-brand cola are stacked up next to the stairs.

Farrar and Tweedy, both 25 and lifelong residents of Belleville, have lived in this $210-a-month apartment for five years. Unlike many small-town bands that flee to the big city in search of recognition and record deals, Uncle Tupelo has remained here, raking things at its own slow pace. Only Ken Coomer, who replaced the group's original drummer a year ago, lives away from here, in Nashville.

"Sometimes we've thought about leaving," Tweedy says, with a shrug. "But I don't think we'd do it. It's pretty cheap to live here. It feels like home."

From the first line of the first song of Uncle Tupelo's first album, 1990's No Depression, it's clear that life in Belleville has provided a rich source of material for the band. And although Tweedy and Farrar's candid, plain-spoken songs about drinking, thankless jobs, dead-end dreams, and small town angst often paint a bleak picture of the place, there is also a strong identification with Belleville in the music, a rootedness that resonates through the music. That's particularly evident on Anodyne, the band's fourth album and first for Warner Bros. The tone is not so much disdainful as searching. Dealing with themes of impermanence, betrayal, consequence, many of the songs contain a sad fatalism that's deeply rooted in Uncle Tupelo's sense of time and place. "Findin' out that the worst is true," Farrar sings in "Fifteen Keys," with a timeless-sounding pain in his voice. "Findin' out that it can't escape you."

Recorded entirely live in two weeks in Austin, Texas, the music feels relaxed, unrushed, free of calculation or pretense. Farrar's twangy voice and clanking electric guitar leads recall Neil Young at times; his and Tweedy's acoustic/electric guitar textures and sweet harmonies take you back to the Flying Burrito Brothers. And like those obvious influences, Uncle Tupelo's sound has a spirit all its own. Switching among fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and lap steel, Max Johnston (who met up with Uncle Tupelo when the band was on tour opening for his sister, Michelle Shocked) gives the songs rich texture without ever sounding overstated. The duet between Farrar and Texas Tornadoes singer/guitarist Doug Sahm on Sahm's "Give Back the Keys to My Heart" sparkles. From start to finish, Anodyne has much more country guts and soul than anything by Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks, or the entire Top-10 cast of Nashville clowns combined.

It's midnight on a Friday, and I'm sitting alone at the bar at Friday's East, a dark cocktail lounge near my motel. Two middle-aged men with rugged mustaches and pot bellies have been slumped over a table near the back for quite some time, drinking pitchers and flicking their still-glowing cigarette butts onto the floor. In the corner, a guy with a T-shirt that reads, "My boss told me I could go places... Iike home,'' is cursing and kicking at a video poker machine that he cannot seem to beat.

The bartender, an affable 26-year-old Belleville native named Jerome, is mixing free samples of exotic drinks with names like Purple Hooter and Buttery Nipple. He graduated from Belleville West High in 1984, a year ahead of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Back then, Uncle Tupelo was called the Primitives, and Jerome remembers first hearing the group - which then included Uncle Tupelo's first drummer, Mike Heidorn, and Farrar's older brother, Wade, on vocals - when it won a high school "battle of the bands" contest. The Primitives played parties and school functions, but according to Jerome the best shows were the ones the band put on itself at Liederkranz Hall, an old German community center.

"Man, everybody would go see the Primitives play at the Liederkranz," he says, his voice cracking with excitement. "We'd get all drunk in the parking lot before the show, like wasted, and sometimes Jeff Tweedy's mom would be taking tickets at the door...

"I think I got laid there one time," he adds, lowering his voice and Ieaning in close over the bar. "Yeah, I did, for sure. I remember."

Jerome hasn't seen Farrar and Tweedy play since they changed the name to Uncle Tupelo in 1987. But he says they stop in for drinks every once in a while, and he sometimes plays their tapes in the bar.

"Uncle Tupelo's stilI real popular," he's quick to add. "I guess in their songs they sing about how there's nothing to do around here but get drunk and... well, that's something everyone in Belleville can relate to."

He pauses, chugging the rest of the Purple Hooter he's got stashed behind the bar. "Gettin' drunk." he says slowly, as if he likes the sound, "that's about it."

The next day, Saturday, is hot and sticky. Returning from a mini-tour of town in Farrar's black '62 Comet, Tweedy, Farrar and I head straight for the dark, air-conditioned living room of their home. Since the previous evening, the two have spent many hours in this cluttered room - talking, watching TV, listening to music, or just escaping the heat. Farrar stretches out on a tattered vinyl recliner as Tweedy holds up a garbage bag and begins sorting through the heaps of newspapers, fanzines, CD cases, beer cans, chewing tobacco wrappers, and junk food on the coffee table. It's a major task, and he gives up before he's even made a dent, collapsing onto a puke-yellow velour couch with broken springs that protrude like teeth.

If Uncle Tupelo - along with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Kelly Willis, Howe Gelb, Maria McKee, Sid Griffen, Lucinda Williams, Janet Bean and a big batch of others - is attempting to get at the real spirit of country music, the band's roots lie more in punk rock. "We used to go see the Minutemen, Black Flag, all those bands when they played in St. Louis," remembers Tweedy. "Me and Jay weren't even friends with anyone who wasn't into Black Flag."

During their high school days as the Primitives, Tweedy and Farrar played mostly '60s rock'n'roll and punk covers. After Farrar's older brother joined the Army, the Primitives split up, and Tweedy and Farrar started writing more of their own songs. At the time they were juggling day jobs - Farrar worked until recently at his mother's bookstore in Belleville; Tweedy has had a variety of jobs - and classes during their first year of college. In 1987, the two got together with Mike Heidorn, worked out a bunch of songs, started playing local shows as Uncle Tupelo and did opening spots at small clubs in St. Louis. Over the next couple years, as Uncle Tupelo toured an ever-broadening segment of the Midwest, Farrar and Tweedy both quit school. In 1989, the band got signed by the small New York indie Rockville.

Both 1990's No Depression and 1991's Still Feel Gone surge with punk-meets country energy, a homespun amalgam that's earthier and less psychedelic than Green On Red, but has a similar spirit. At a time of supremely calculated musical poses - when hip bands are soullessly nibbling at the global music smorgasbord in search of some magical combination of styles - Uncle Tupelo is the exact opposite. Whether gracefully interpreting the old A.P. Carter song "No Depression," on the first album, or blasting through a guitar-drenched tribute to the late guitarist D. Boon on the second, the band eschews all pretense or trendiness, creating music that's simple, direct and always deeply felt.

"It wasn't like we were ever intentionally trying to merge punk and country or anything," says Tweedy. "That's just what came out."

While the band was recording its third album, the mostly acoustic March 16-20, 1992 (produced by Peter Buck), relations with Rockville were crumbling. Drummer Heidorn quit to stay home with his wife more often. Finally, after the first replacement drummer didn't work out, Farrar and Tweedy recruited Ken Coomer, a former member of Clockhammer. In the meantime, the band had inked a deal with Warner, despite having reservations about working for a major label.

"This one woman from a major label came down here a couple years ago and put all this pressure on us," says Tweedy. "She told us about the videos and said in a year we could have any guitars we want." He smirks: "Like, 'Oh, really, where do we sign?' But for us, this time it was just a matter of finding what felt comfortable. Things weren't working out with the other label, and this seemed to be the best thing."

The band stuck to its low-budget aesthetic, recording Anodyne live in the studio and taking as little money up front as possible. "To us, designing the cover ourselves was a bigger deal than the advance or any of the other contract stuff," says Farrar. "We've always tried to keep our overhead low. It's pretty cheap to live here and practice at the same place. We're used to skimping by, so the money's not really important as long as we can make the music we want."

Tweedy outlines his own priorities: "I figure if we stay together, even if we don't sell a lot of records or whatever, we could at least play around the Midwest for another ten years or so. As long as I can pay my $200 rent, it doesn't take a lot." What about after that? "I don't know,'' he says. "I'll probably work on the railroad like my dad."

Just before six p.m., Coomer and part-time members Max Johnston and John Stirratt - all visiting for the weekend to rehearse for an upcoming two-week tour of Scandinavia - return from an unfruitful guitar shopping trip into St. Louis. Earlier in the day, the band had talked about rehearsing at six, but after two days with Uncle Tupelo I'd grown used to plans vacillating and often getting scrapped altogether. I was surprised, then, to see Coomer dragging his drum kit across the kitchen floor into the practice studio, and Max Johnston actually sitting down to tune his lap steel.

The practice room is like an oven. A small, low-ceilinged space off the kitchen crammed with amps and guitars, there's barely room for everyone to set up, and they're sweating before the first note is played. The album jacket for Waylon Jennings's Are You Ready For the Country is propped against an amplifier, just below the one for Buddy Rich's Big Swing Face. There's no foam rubber or mattresses up along any of the walls - just a blanket over the open doorway and a window covered with cheap plastic shades.

"Sometimes these kids'll hear us playing and they'll come up," says Farrar, tuning his guitar at the kitchen table. "They say weird stuff like, 'Hey, dude, it sounds like Aerosmith; kind of different but it rocks, dude.' They can't really figure it out." He laughs. "Usually we just lock the front door."

Twenty minutes later, the drums kick in and the band clowns through a Led Zeppelin medley. Its been a month since all five touring members have played together, and at first they sound rough, tentative. After a half-hour of stops and starts, the band scrapes its way through an entire version of "Chickamauga," then launches straight into "The Long Cut."

All of a sudden, everything clicks. From the first note, Farrar's guitar is stinging, the drums and bass are working in perfect synch, and Tweedy's raspy voice spills over the top. Guitars surge and swirl against the rhythm until a certain point when everything suddenly cuts out, and Tweedy is left singing over Farrar's lingering guitar riff. His voice grows harsh and dry: "If you want to take the long cut/I think that's what we need/lf you want to take the long cut/We'll get there eventually."

Shadows are falling dark across the room now the street lamps outside have flickered on. And in the silence that follows the end of the song, all I can hear is the buzzing sound of thousands of crickets outside. Wonder if this is the way ol' Hank done it?

(Thanks to Mark Janovec for sending this in.)

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)