Country music has always seemed something of an emotionally-overgenerous complainer’s genre for me. My wife left, my dog died, a slipped and fell and I can’t get up. And while you might be able to say the same thing about the Blues, for some reason I don’t feel as detached from that as I had always been with regard to Country music. Maybe it’s just the difference in vocal presentation – the Blues producing full-throated investments and barely-controlled shouts of anguish, while Country always seemed to be whiny and nasal. That’s just me – I’m not criticizing Country music – and I fully appreciate and respect the delight that other people might take in classics from Tammy Wynette or Hank Williams. And Johnny Cash gets a lifetime pass from me, but he’s badass and if I didn’t give him the pass he just up and take it, anyway.
Comes along the “at.country” genre and Uncle Tupelo, and my ears are opened. It wasn’t at their first emergence, though – I admit that it took the record, “March 16-20 1992,” to get my attention. And I found it nowhere near its release date in 1992. Instead, it crossed my path much later and pretty much because I heard that R.E.M’s Peter Buck produced it at his Athens, GA house – which had enough coolness-factor to get my attention. What gets me about this record is its rawness and its simplicity – and it was a very different record, as it turns out, from the other Uncle Tupelo records, but without which I might never have turned an (mostly) open ear toward the whole alt.country scene at all.
1. Uncle Tupelo : March 16-20, 1992
2: Wilco : Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Uncle Tupelo split up for good following their last release, Anodyne, and the main members – Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar – went their separate ways to form other bands. Wilco is the band that formed around Jeff Tweedy (Sun Volt is the band that formed around Farrar).
In this particular case, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is probably one of my favorite records of all time. The creativity runs deep and wide on this record, and it is very far from the kind of things that record companies are comfortable with because of that. In fact – it got them released from Reprise and free to shop the record. The turmoil that surrounded the creation and release of the record was documented in the documentary, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” – a copy of which my wife and I keep and occasionally re-watch, as loyal fans of the band.
Terrible shame about Jay Bennett … the film documents his release from the band, despite his exceptional creative contributions. His death from accidental (prescription) overdose in 2009 was quite sad news.
3: Sun Volt : Okemah and the Melody of Riot
Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn met bassist Dave Boquist while touring for UT’s final record, Anodyne. But it is in this later incarnation of Sun Volt, for 2005’s release of Okemah and the Melody Riot, where his songs sounded less reticent – more assured of their own power. As Stephen M. Deusner put it:
Okemah proves to be not just 13 protest songs, but 13 songs about protest songs. Farrar believes unquestioningly in music’s ability to affect tremendous social change, soothe a nation, or stop an “endless war with no moral face.”
There’s no shortage of homage on Okemah, and it’s perhaps in the shadow of Pete Seeger’s passing that I’m drawn to the modern protest song that has its roots in American Folk vs. the angry metal of Rage Against The Machine. I think that Okehmah kind of splits the difference in that it rocks, but it’s nevertheless still blossoming from its folk forebears. Afterglow 61, a clear reference to Dylan’s influence on Farrar, seems emblematic of that idea.