By Jeff Moses
By Serene Dominic
By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
Ask any big star about telephone interviews, and he'll tell you that there's an art to blowing them off. The trick, from a musician's point of view, is to dust off a writer without stirring up a grudge. After all, you never know when your tour or album might need media help. Lame excuses won't get it, though. They have to be sly, unexpected and, above all, unbelievable enough to be believable. Listen, for example, to Jeff Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo explain why he hadn't kept a transatlantic phone appointment. "Someone looked over my shoulder at the Newark airport while I was making a long-distance call and stole my credit-card number," Tweedy said later from the band's hotel in London. "This morning someone tried to use the number to make 25 calls from Miami to Kenya. AT&T shut off the card, so we can't make any calls. Sorry."
If it were any other band, the number-theft story would probably score a "9.8" for imagination and performance but a negative four on the plausibility scale. Uncle Tupelo, though, is definitely not like every other band.
Bassist/singer Tweedy, guitarist Jay Farrar and new drummer Ken Coomer aren't the kind to bullshit you. In fact, these boys from Belleville, Illinois (across the river and 25 miles east of St. Louis), are honest nearly to a fault. Their music is a sincere and successful mix of Carter Family, "them thar hills" twangin' and punk-fired guitar wanging.
Seeing this trio live is to see two bands at once. The variance in sound dynamics is amazing. One minute they'll whip out the banjo and pedal steel and launch into a soft and sweet cover of A.P. Carter's "No Depression" (which they used as the title of their first album). Blink and they've hitched up the electric guitars, turned on the speaker boxes and become Middle America's punky answer to the Clash. The one constant influence in the band's sound is Neil Young. His creaky guitar style, "Southern Man" mindset and ability to make folk tunes rock are all seminal parts of Uncle Tupelo's sound.
A little of Young's northern California, laid-back attitude even made it onto the band's latest album, Anodyne--its first for Sire/Reprise Records--courtesy of "Mendocino" writer Doug Sahm. Sahm duets with Jay Farrar on Sahm's own tune, "Give Me Back the Key to My Heart." "We had three weeks of studio time in Austin, so we figured why not try and call some people up? Sahm is one of our heroes," Tweedy says, adding George Jones, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard to that list. "We love everything he's done. We never thought he'd do it. But he came in full of energy and good vibes, sang his part and then proceeded to talk to us for six hours about baseball. It was wonderful."
Filled with tunes whose titles and sounds make the band members' country leanings (Acuff-Rose"), their guitar-band grit (Chickamauga") and their rootedness (New Madrid") very plain, Anodyne is a quiet triumph. It's the kind of major-label debut most bands would kill for. But to Tweedy and the other two-thirds of this small-town trio, switching to a major label from indie Rockville Records was no big deal. Obliviousness is next to honesty in this band's mental and emotional pecking order.
"So far the only difference is that they [Sire] are a little more organized," Tweedy deadpans. "That's a slight drag, because they're so organized that they can set up 100 interviews in one day."
True to their rootsy, down-home nature, the members of Uncle Tupelo decided to record in Austin at Cedar Creek Studios this past spring because of the studio's low-tech come-on.
"We got all these gross, slick pamphlets from huge recording studios. But all they had in them were photos of Jacuzzis and swimming pools instead of the actual studio. It was silly," Tweedy says, in a perfectly serious tone. "Then the Texas Instruments told us about Cedar Creek. When their brochure came and it was full of bad, black-and-white, Xeroxed pictures of their rooms, we knew it was for us."
The other reason that the band chose Cedar Creek and Austin over high-tech recording complexes in New York or La La Land centers on the studio's mixing board. Originally designed for RCA Records' classical division, the board was later purchased by Elvis Presley, who installed it at Graceland. Legend has it that it was used to record Elvis' last album.
Choosing a studio for its mixing board, particularly in this era of digital technology, may seem a little esoteric. But that choice is typical of the Uncle Tupelo mindset. Consider: The band members recorded Anodyne with no overdubs. Not one. They played it all live, usually nailing it in the first or second try. Honesty is one thing, but no overdubs? This has the ring of going too far.
"The reason we didn't do any overdubs on our last two albums (Anodyne and last year's March 16-20, 1992) isn't because we respect records that were done that way, or because we're trying to get an 'old' sound," Tweedy says. "It's because we play everything live before we record it, and when we overdubbed, we were always disappointed. We're a live band, pure and simple.