Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After two albums of amplified country-rock infused with punk energy, Uncle Tupelo’s third release, March 16-20, 1992 (1992), was a complete change of pace that cemented their reputation as alt-country standard bearers. This time, REM’s Peter Buck offered to produce the album, and he even let the band stay at his house in Athens, GA for free so their entire budget (from indie label Rockville Records) could be spent on recording. Drummer Mike Heidorn had decided to leave the band for personal reasons but stuck around for the recording of this album. Since most of the songs feature acoustic arrangements, though, Heidorn’s presence is only noticeable on a handful of tracks. This was really the Jay Farrar-Jeff Tweedy show, and they came up with a great collection of folk- and country-influenced songs along with six covers and “Trad Arr” songs (which refers to traditional, public domain songs that are arranged by the performer). The two tracks that open the album, both by Farrar, set a great tone for what’s to come. “Grindstone” has a nice chugging acoustic guitar and subtle brushwork on the snare drum by Heidorn. It sounds like a classic folk song, although the tempo changes bring it into the modern age. “Coalminers” is a stark and haunting traditional ballad; a rousing call to arms about the difficult life of the titular laborers (“Let’s sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell”) that’s carried along by just guitar and Farrar’s inimitable voice.
Farrar’s songs dominate here like they did on the first two albums, but Tweedy still offers some very good ones. The best of them is “Black Eye,” a Paul Simon-esque tune with excellent guitar work by frequent Uncle Tupelo collaborator Brian Henneman. “Wait Up” is another good one, with a circular guitar pattern that recalls British folk artists like Nick Drake & Bert Jansch. At just over 2 minutes it’s a little slight, with only two quick verses, but Henneman adds some nice banjo that had me smiling. “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a brief but powerful Depression-era gospel song with strong vocals from Tweedy. One of the standout tracks is “Moonshiner,” a co-write between Tweedy and Farrar that features the latter on vocals. It’s slow as molasses, with Neil Young-inspired harmonica, written from the perspective of an alcohol supplier/drinker (“I go to some hollow and set up my still, If the whiskey don’t kill me, Lord I don’t know what will”). A good song became great with the last line: “The whole world is a bottle and life is but a dram, When the bottle gets empty, Lord it sure ain’t worth a damn.” Dark & dreary, yes…but powerful too.
Farrar wrote “Shaky Ground,” a simple acoustic song “in memory of a miner.” The arrangement is simple & effective, with sad lyrics (“An expired product off the shelf, working for someone else”). Their cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Atomic Power” is a bouncy folk/country tune with pleasant harmonies that offset some very dark lyrics about seeking God’s strength in the face of atomic war. “Lilli Schull” is the longest song on the album, at over 5 minutes, and it’s also the slowest-paced…but that works in its favor. It’s a traditional murder ballad with a back-porch arrangement that conveys all the emotions of a death row inmate as he awaits execution for the murder of the girl in the title. The playful instrumental “Sandusky,” which was co-written by Farrar & Tweedy, has some great guitar interplay and reminds me of REM’s folkier material. “Wipe The Clock” is very simple, with strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica, and I especially love Farrar’s aching voice at “never heard a story of anyone” and “what’s it matter right now?” The songs I haven’t mentioned continue in the same acoustic vein as the rest of the album, but aren’t worth special mention. Of the bonus tracks included on the 2003 reissue, their acoustic take on The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is a whole lot of fun, as is the brief hidden track: “The Waltons” TV theme song. This album must have been a bit of a shock for fans when it was released, but other than the instrumentation, not much had changed. They were still writing (and now interpreting) great songs and delivering them with passion and authority. I imagine people who enjoy Bruce Springsteen’s more offbeat records like The Ghost Of Tom Joad and We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions would love this album. There were times when I played it this week where I considered it my favorite Uncle Tupelo album, but I think that will change depending on my mood.
For their fourth and final album, Anodyne (1993), they signed with a major label (Sire/Reprise) and added some additional musicians to fill out the sound. Ken Coomer, who would go on to join Tweedy in Wilco, took over for Heidorn on the drums. New bassist John Stirratt, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines (father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines) would also be part of Wilco, along with long-time collaborator Brian Henneman. Most of the songs here are credited to Farrar and Tweedy, an ironic sign of solidarity in the face of their impending split. The album was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, which gives the songs an energy & vitality that might have been missing had they gone with a slick production that was standard practice for major label bands at that time. The majority of my favorite songs on this album were written and sung by Tweedy. “Acuff Rose” is a wonderfully peppy song that’s elevated by Farrar’s mandolin. This upbeat bluegrass-y love song is actually an ode to the Nashville publishing company that rose to prominence thanks to the songs of one of my early musical heroes, Hank Williams (“Name me a song that everybody knows, and I’ll bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose”). “The Long Cut” (as in, the opposite of “short cut”) is another REM-sounding song, with Tweedy’s raw and passionate vocals a notable highlight. Although it’s straight-ahead rock, the lyrics deal with a strained relationship, possibly a reference to Farrar (“We’ve been in a deep rut and it’s been killing me”).
Tweedy’s strongest song is “New Madrid,” all bouncy and plucky, with banjo bringing a smile to my face. There’s also a super-catchy chorus: “Come on, do what you did, Roll me under New Madrid; Shake my baby and please bring her back.” Farrar’s best contribution is the heartbreaking “Anodyne,” an ironic title since “anodyne” can refer to a pain reliever while his lyrics offer nothing but pain: “No sign of reconciliation, it’s a quarter past the end; Full moon on high, across the board we lose again.” Could this possibly be a reference to Tweedy? These two songs form a perfect point-counterpoint in the middle of the album, where the former closed out Side 1 and the latter opened Side 2 on the original LP.
Tweedy’s “We’ve Been Had” is a fun, propulsive country rocker with a killer guitar hook. I love the loose harmonies in the chorus, and the overall rawness reminded me of Springsteen’s “Crush On You.” He also wrote and sang “No Sense In Lovin’,” a lilting country-pop song with a steady beat and more great pedal steel from Maines. The upbeat music betrays lyrics like “I’ve tried to understand your abuse, but you’ve got no excuse, and there’s no use in lovin’ anyone who hates themself.” Two more strong Farrar songs are “Fifteen Keys” and “High Water.” In the former, I like the syncopated rhythm, which gives the song more personality than a straight 4/4 groove. Johnston’s dobro adds a cool element to the sound. The latter is slow and mournful, with more lyrics about a broken down relationship (“We quote each other only when we’re wrong, We tear out the threads and move along”). Once again I have to wonder if he was predicting the end of the band with a chorus of “I can see the sand and it’s running out.” The bonus tracks on the 2003 reissue are all very good, but there’s nothing essential among the five of them. It’s certainly nice to hear their take on Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” with Joe Ely on vocals, as well as a raucous cover of ‘50s country song “Truck Drivin’ Man” originally by Terry Fell. I have to imagine that this album was the introduction for most people into the world of Uncle Tupelo, since it was released on a major label and probably received more promotion than any of their prior releases. I hope most of those people went back and explored their catalog, since each album holds its own unique charm. As I stated above, any of them could be my favorite at any particular time, Anodyne included (especially for those two key songs in the center of the album).
A year before each of the albums was reissued on expanded CDs, Sony Music (which by then had the rights to the three Rockville albums) released an excellent career retrospective, 89/93: An Anthology (2002). At the time I owned the original CD pressings of No Depression, Still Feel Gone and March 16-20, 1992, but had never gotten Anodyne, so this collection was a nice way for me to fill in the gaps in my Uncle Tupelo collection. Not only did I get three Anodyne songs plus a live version of a fourth, but there were also six additional tracks that were previously unavailable or rare. The best of these, “Sauget Wind,” would appear as a bonus track on the Still Feel Gone reissue, and it’s the best of the non-LP tracks here. “Outdone (1989 Demo)” combines their usual REM influence, but also reminds me a bit of “Marching On” by Welsh band The Alarm (one of my favorite ‘80s artists). There’s a different version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” recorded during the March 16-20, 1992 sessions, which is good but doesn’t have the unplugged charm of the version I previously mentioned. Their nearly-6-minute version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy” doesn’t outstrip the original, but Farrar really shreds on the guitar, showing his admiration for Neil Young and The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris. Although there are probably 4-5 other songs I would’ve included on this compilation, I have to give the producers credit for an excellent track listing that covers a majority of the best songs from each album, with a smattering of very good rarities. For anyone who’s read these two posts and wants to hear more of their music, but doesn’t feel the need to own everything they released, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth with this CD. I would just urge you to at least seek out the songs “Postcard” and “Anodyne” as well, since they’re my two favorites that didn’t make the cut here.
That was a fun little catalog to revisit. Now that I’ve delved into their music and backstory, I will be fully prepared when I eventually shift my focus to the Son Volt and Wilco catalogs. I’m not sure when I’ll get to them, since I have an immense list of artists whose catalogs I want to spend time with, but whenever I do I know I’ll be enjoying the work of two very gifted songwriters. And although I can’t pick a favorite, I’ve really grown to love Farrar’s voice the past two weeks. I always liked it, but until now I never realized how distinct it is. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief series. If you’re already a fan, let me know which of their songs/albums you love. If, however, you’re new to their music via this blog, I would love to know what made the biggest impression on you. Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.