The Country of Rock and Roll

From the ashes of Uncle Tupelo springs Wilco, genreless and great

Though all of Uncle Tupelo's songs were credited to Farrar-Tweedy, they never wrote together; they were, as has often been insisted among Tupelo fanatics, the Lennon and McCartney of the late '80s and early '90s -- each singing his own songs, Farrar writing the more somber rockers and folksy coal miner songs and Tweedy penning the poppier cuts. When Jay Farrar unexpectedly announced he was quitting Uncle Tupelo in the winter of 1993 -- he and Tweedy were often at odds over who would get to perform what, and they barely spoke near the end -- Tweedy gathered the remaining band members and asked them if they'd like to quit or continue on. To a man, they agreed to stay on with Tweedy, if not as Uncle Tupelo then as a new band. At that moment, Wilco was born, though only now -- with the release of their debut A.M. -- are the seeds bearing fruit.

"That was the only thing that got me through the end of Uncle Tupelo," Tweedy says. "Actually, all of us felt some sense of relief in knowing we could keep playing together. That decision was made really, really pretty fast after we found out Jay was going to leave. It was like, 'Jay's leaving, but I don't want to quit. Do you guys want to quit?' And they said no."

Like No Depression-era Uncle Tupelo, Wilco uses country music much as the Replacements did for Hootenanny or the Mekons did for Fear and Whiskey -- as a starting place, but not as the frame upon which to hang its existence. The use of mandolin, banjo and pedal steel guitar does not hide the fact that A.M. is a pop-rock record, Tweedy picking up where Paul Westerberg left off when the Replacements disbanded.

A.M. declares its intentions out front with the kiss-off song "I Must Be High," in which Tweedy sends his gal off with a jubilant "bah-bah-bah-bye" (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Big Star); from there it rolls into the Stones-esque "Casino Queen," the rave-up "Box Full of Letters" ("Just can't find the time to write my mind the way I want it to read," Tweedy sings) and "Passenger Side," in which the drunken narrator begs for a ride to the store till the judge gives him back his license. It's an infectious, marvelous album on which even the saddest songs ("That's Not the Issue," "Pick Up the Change") are sung through an evident smile.

If Tupelo's albums painted a gray portrait of an American landscape, with desolate tales of coal miners and Appalachian life, Wilco's is an intimate record filled with sparsely told love songs and breakup songs (as though there were a difference). "It's really hard to put into words why Wilco is different from Uncle Tupelo and how much different it is, but everybody is really enthusiastic," Tweedy says. "It's not about being huge or anything, it's just real real. We really have turned into really close friends. It all sounds really sappy when you try to put it like that in an interview, but it's true. I think everybody feels really comfortable and there's nobody looking over each person's shoulder judging what each person is doing."

Wilco, though, is no more Tweedy's band than Tupelo was Farrar's: without, say, Max Johnston and his endearing musical innocence, Wilco would still be a great rock and roll band, but a very traditional one; with him there to add a Dobro or mandolin or fiddle as an extra voice in the mix, the songs transcend their convention.

Johnston's folk background and rock naivete is the very thing that defines Wilco. During recording sessions, Tweedy leaves it to Johnston to decide whether he should play on a song; Tweedy, in fact, is often amazed at how Johnston can slip a Dobro into an outright classic-sounding pop song such as "Box Full of Letters."

"Max doesn't know anything about rock music -- zero," Tweedy says. "Before he joined Uncle Tupelo, he'd never been plugged into an amplifier. He seems to feel ashamed of that sometimes, and we can't stop telling him how cool that is. He has a clean slate. He's not colored by punk rock telling you a certain amount of stuff sucks or the hierarchy of classic-rock generations. He gets to hear a lot of stuff for the first time with a really unique perspective. That he can enjoy being in the band kind of validates it. If Max is looking at this like it's a country band, then great."

"I don't want to be self-important or anything," Johnston says, "but my role is to take something that would otherwise be a guitar-bass-drums thing and maybe add something to it that makes it sound just a little bit different from the next thing."

With Uncle Tupelo, there always existed the finest of distinctions that separated the rock songs from the country songs from the bluegrass-coal miner songs. "Graveyard Shift" from No Depression and "New Madrid" from Anodyne sound like they were performed by two different bands -- one, a bar-band playing sloppy and loud; the other, acoustic folk musicians raised in the backwoods of Kentucky. With Wilco, there's no separation of genres, no attempt to distill the influences; rather, Tweedy and the band operate on the assumption that American music in all its incarnations is folk music -- whether it's acoustic or electric, black or white, created in the country or in the city.

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