HONESTY IS THE BEST ANODYNEUNCLE TUPELO KEEPS ITS MIDWESTERN ROOTS ON THE WAY TO LOW-TECH SUCCESS
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.
"The funny part is that no one believes us when we say we record tunes in one take. To us, it's honest."
There's that word again. Honest. Fortunately, there's a crucial difference between the way Uncle Tupelo and the rest of its Midwestern music brethren define that quality. Instead of pushing the rah-rah, Heartland sensibility of someone like John Mellencamp, Uncle Tupelo paints bittersweet miniatures that blend tragic grays with easier, more optimistic hues. Uncle Tupelo produces a more thoughtful, realistic picture than the "Pink Houses"/Small Town" vision that Mellencamp's no-brainer ditties warble about.
Part of the reason this trio has remained honest springs from lifestyle. Both Tweedy and Farrar still live in Belleville. The two 25-year-olds live together in a house they rent "for around $500." The pair began playing together in 1984 at West Belleville West High School. Their first band was a punk/Seventies cover band called the Primitives, which quickly developed a devoted (and inebriated) following by playing places like Liederkranz Hall, the local German club.
By 1987, when drummer Mike Heidorn joined, Tweedy and Farrar had a pack of original material and had begun opening club dates in nearby St. Louis. Two years later, after several minitours of the Midwest, the band signed to Rockville and made No Depression. That album and its follow-up, Still Feel Gone, garnered respectable sales figures, but the band hated them. They felt both albums suffered from too much studio gimmickry. By the time of 1992's March 16-20, 1992, the band had hardened on the idea of playing live, both on the stage and in the studio.
Although the band's sound has been fleshed out, both on the new album and the subsequent tour, with pedal-steel player Lloyd Maines, guitarist John Stirratt and fiddle/banjo/mandolin player Max Johnston, the band and its music remain remarkably untouched by rising fortunes. On the phone from London, Tweedy wasn't worried about the tour, the album or any other musical matters.
It's the telephone scam that has him worried. "I don't care if they call the moon with our numbers," he says. "Without those credit cards, though, we can't call home. We can't call Belleville.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.