[25 June 2009]
Summer always seems a particularly good time to put on a Wilco album. Few are the summer nights not improved by Being There’s veering between hazy dreamscape and boozy punch up, and rare are the summer afternoon slumps that can’t be stirred to motion by the infectious pop of Summerteeth. Moreover, if you’ve never seen the band live, outdoor summer shows are definitely the best way to experience them.
With the recent death of former band member Jay Bennett, whose dismissal from the band during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions was documented in Sam Jones’ I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and whose importance to the band’s mid-period sound was demonstrated in the tonal shift that followed his departure, and the upcoming release of the band’s seventh full length, already streaming, leaked and available to anyone with an internet connection, Wilco’s been on my mind a bit. This prompted a trip through the band’s back catalog and beyond, settling in on five days in March of 1992, before the birth of Wilco, when Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar quietly altered the geography of the burgeoning alt-country music scene.
The impressive thing about moving backwards through Tweedy’s career is the series of jumps, almost aesthetic disconnects, that occur between albums. Regarding Wilco, nothing on the band’s debut, A.M., a direct outgrowth of Tweedy’s work with Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, anticipates the head-bopping of Summerteeth’s opening track, arguably the moment Tweedy and Wilco left alt-country behind. No less surprising is the moment after the release of Still Feel Gone, Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 sophomore album that owed more to the Minutemen than Hank Williams, when the band slammed on the brakes, discarded the amps and released March 16-20, 1992.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on Uncle Tupelo, much of it on their first album, No Depression, when a couple of kids from outside St. Louis fused punk and country as an outlet for their frustrations with jobs, drinking and the monotony of their daily lives. The band followed up with Still Feel Gone, which expanded and developed their sound, but stayed well within the boundaries they’d set up with their debut. The third album marked a major shift for the band, almost abandoning their punk aesthetic entirely.
The reasons for the shift were two-fold: part economic and part serendipitous. With the success of Nirvana, like-minded bands were being encouraged by major labels to be even more like-minded and cater their sound to the newly created alternative rock megamarket. Signed to Rockville Records, Tupelo was being eyed by a handful of majors as the next big thing based on the success of their first two albums. No Depression and Still Feel Gone brought plenty of twang to the table, but still presented a recognizable sound to fans of Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du or even Nirvana. Not wanting to be pigeonholed, the band made a conscious decision to reinvent their sound for their third album.
At around the same time, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, a country music enthusiast whose love of the genre heavily influenced the band’s breakthrough album Out of Time, had a moment of recognition when he saw Uncle Tupelo perform their cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Atomic Power” at a show in Athens, George. Afterwards, he approached the band and offered his assistance recording their next album, even offering to house the band while they recorded. Seeing the opportunity to try something new, Uncle Tupelo stepped into John Keane’s Athens recording studio for the five days that became the album’s title and recorded a set of 15 stripped down tracks, including eight originals, six traditional tunes (although one of the songs credited as “Traditional” was actually Sara Ogan’s “Come on You Coalminers”) and “Atomic Power by the Louvin Brothers.
The brevity of the recording sessions, it should be noted, was not unusual for the band, who had recorded their debut in only ten days. But in choosing the dates of recording as the album title, Uncle Tupelo called attention to both the spartan nature of the recordings themselves and the album’s particular place in musical history. The title almost dares the listener to play the album alongside others from that year.
During the year in question, March 16-20, 1992 joined releases like Automatic for the People and the Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass in counterbalancing the guitar-heavy sound prevalent on the radio, but perhaps more importantly, and certainly for the purposes of this column, it opened up a new dimension within the alt-country movement, sometimes called ‘No Depression’ in reference to Uncle Tupelo’s first album which, according to some critics, single-handedly birthed the hybridized genre (all members of Uncle Tupelo have strongly denied this claim).
Alt country, in its early ‘90s incarnation, grew largely out of punk music, returning to the roots of country music for a kind a mixture of swagger and cowpunk attitude, another way to express the frustrations of early adulthood in a time of economic downturn, and delivering country tunes at breakneck speed and at deafening volume. Alt country pioneers Dinosaur Jr, for example, titled their greatest hits collection Ear-Bleeding Country and listening to the early ‘90s output of bands like Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets and the Old 97s makes it clear how appropriate that title was.
By unplugging, stripping down and returning to folk songs rather than rowdier country covers, Uncle Tupelo showed audiences and fellow musicians that along with swagger, country offered a heartfelt sincerity different from the overwrought caterwauling of popular alternative bands – not least that long tradition of political protest. Farrar’s “Criminals”, twisting a George Bush I quote into the bitter line “They want us kinder and gentler and at their feet”, seethes with an eloquence most punk songs never manage. If the working class trope begins to wear a little thin by the album’s end (or near its beginning: some of Uncle Tupelo’s contemporaries found their cover of “Coalminers” comic), the beautiful bleakness of Tweedy’s rendition of “I Wish My Baby Was Born” and the light simplicity of “Wait Up” still pair perfectly with Farrar’s moribund delivery of “Lilli Schul” and “Moonshiner”.
As the ‘90s rolled on and Uncle Tupelo disbanded, the lessons of March 16-20 ran like a steady current through the heart of alt-country. Ryan Adams’ Whiskeytown stole plenty of riffs from the Replacements, but paired that pop-punk sensibility with the sweet and desolate acoustic sounds Tupelo spotlighted on March 16-20. When Gillian Welch released her debut album Revival in 1996, its quiet reflection resonated with alt-country fans as much as the barroom dust-up antics of the Old 97s, albeit in a different way. Even Johnny Cash’s mid-‘90s career resurgence with his American Recordings albums owes a certain debt to March 16-20for priming listeners to hear acoustic country songs with fresh ears.
Now Jeff Tweedy’s band is releasing their seventh album, having left behind much of the sonic experimentation that marked his collaboration with the late Jay Bennett and the punk attitude he brought to his work with Farrar and Uncle Tupelo (Tweedy’s songs always had more of the Johnny Rotten-style snarl than Farrar’s). In its place, along with a Beatlesque gift for pop songcraft, is a return to the simple, introspective lyricism Tupelo demonstrated in their acoustic masterpiece. Whatever your judgment on Tweedy’s most recent effort, it’s not a bad idea some night to pour yourself a glass of whiskey and spend an hour in five days of March, 1992.