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THERE'S A TEAR IN MY BEERUNCLE TUPELO DRAWS ON MIDDLE-AMERICAN ANGST

"It's easy to write a song when you're upset about something," says Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo. "I mean, the last thing you want to do when you're happy is sit down and write about it. It almost seems like you're bragging."
Tweedy certainly isn't a boastful guy. He could be, though. All he'd have to do is check out the growing pile of rave reviews comparing Uncle Tupelo to acts ranging from Bruce Springsteen to the Replacements. Rolling Stone went so far as to describe Uncle Tupelo's music as "what it would have sounded like if Hank Williams had fronted Husker Du."

It seems like a lot of people think Uncle Tupelo is headed for great things. But Tweedy and his fellow Tupes aren't going anywhere just yet. Instead, vocalist-bassist Tweedy, vocalist-guitarist Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn are still hanging around their hometown of Belleville, Illinois, writing songs about the things they see in the suburbs--things like unemployment, disenchantment and the general erosion of the American dream.

Tweedy describes Belleville as "a working-class suburb of St. Louis. It's blue-collar in the sense that the people here commute, but to jobs on assembly lines instead of lawyers' offices." Tweedy says the recession has hit Belleville hard. As a result, he says, his neighbors are losing their jobs and often spending what little money they have commiserating at the local taverns.

All of which helps explain the disquieting mood that hung over Uncle Tupelo's excellent national debut No Depression, an album soaked with imbibed resignation. On the disc's best song, "Whiskey Bottle," Farrar sings as if stationed on a barstool: "I can't forget the sound because it's here to stay/The sound of people chasing money/And money gettin' away." Farrar's solution? "Whiskey bottle over Jesus/Not forever/Just for now."

Later, on "Life Worth Livin'," Farrar again bellies up to the bar: "This song is sung for the broken-spirited man," he sings. "With a beer in each hand and a smile in between/While all around's a world grown mean." The song's chorus is equally bleary: "We're all lookin' for a life worth livin'/That's why we drink ourselves to sleep/That's why we pray our souls to keep."

Tweedy's tunes aren't quite as bleak as his buddy's, but they're close. Are things really that bad out there? Tweedy lets out a little laugh. "Probably not," he answers. "But the economy and things are pretty lousy here--you see it all over the place. And I guess it all just comes out when we write songs."

Such sentiments have been coming out of Uncle Tupelo since the three childhood chums decided to put a band together more than ten years ago. But no one seemed to care much until No Depression was released late in 1990 on New York's independent Rockville label. Since then, Uncle Tupelo's middle-American angst has found a small but enthusiastic audience of true believers--something Tweedy can't quite believe himself. "It's really weird when you say something in a song and people actually listen," he says. "It's exciting, but there's also a basic fear of being misunderstood and of having people like you for all the wrong reasons.

"I've read where Paul Westerberg [of the Replacements] says it really tears him up sometimes. He talks about seeing all these confident-looking yuppies going crazy in the front rows, but those aren't the people he intended to reach. It's the ones in back who don't have the courage to introduce themselves that he'd really like to meet." Tweedy goes on to say the Tupes are still pretty much faces in the back of the crowd around Belleville. "People don't really bother us at all when we go out to a show around here," he says. "It's nice because we're the kind of guys who tend to stand in a corner, drink beer and watch the band."

Still, Uncle Tupelo's hardly a local bar band anymore. And the increasing attention surrounding the band's work has already made a difference.

"You try to write songs for yourself or the band," Tweedy says, "but you can't ignore the fact that a lot more people are going to hear it. Actually, it's made us try harder not to repeat ourselves so much--you know, not sing so many drinking songs."

Despite such attempts to go on the wagon, Uncle Tupelo's new album Still Feel Gone feels tipsy, what with songs like "Punch Drunk" and "Watch Me Fall." The band's bloodshot view of Easy Street survives as well, along with the aggressive guitar crunch and kinda-country-rock that lifted No Depression.

The new album also features a song called "D. Boon," in reference to the late front man for the Minutemen. Boon died five years ago in a traffic accident on Interstate 10 just this side of Quartzsite, Arizona. Tweedy says he wrote the song as a general tribute to what musicians like D. Boon represent.

"I was thinking about how somebody I never really met affected my life--how you can feel so close to someone who lives thousands of miles away," he says. "And I was kind of wondering if I'd ever really have the same kind of effect on someone else. Or if it was even worth it--if maybe I'd make more of a difference in the world if I was a social worker or joined the Peace Corps."

Tweedy thinks a lot about life outside Uncle Tupelo. "I have to remind myself all the time that you can't depend on any of this lasting forever," he says. "Right now it pays the bills, maybe a little more. It'd be nice if we could all have families and support ourselves with our music. But we've drawn a line to make sure things don't get out of hand, like when you're only writing songs to put out a new record and you're only putting out a record to survive."

Tweedy figures if the Tupes ever do cry uncle, the band members could always try to get the type of work their daddies did. Farrar's father, for instance, was a shipbuilder. Heidorn's dad still works for a trucking company. Tweedy's pop labored on the railroads, something Tweedy can definitely see himself doing if need be.

"Hey," he says, "it's the only way I'd get any work for more than minimum wage."

Uncle Tupelo will perform at the Mason Jar on Monday, October 14. Showtime is 9 p.m.

"There's a basic fear of being misunderstood and of having people like you for all the wrong reasons."

"We're the kind of guys who tend to stand in a corner, drink beer and watch the band."

"Maybe I'd make more of a difference in the world if I was a social worker or joined the Peace Corps."

"It's really weird when you say something in a song and people actually listen.

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Ted Simons