The Country of Rock and Roll

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

Over a plate of chicken-fried steak, fried corn, green beans and mashed potatoes, Max Johnston makes a startling revelation. Until just a few weeks ago, he had never heard Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird"; worse yet, he says -- his boyish face sort of flushed and twisted with a mixture of embarrassment and glee -- he absolutely loved it, even wondered why it wasn't a hit.

"I thought, 'This is a cool song, man,'" he recalls. "And then my girlfriend tells me it's a joke song because everybody calls it out at shows, and I'd never heard it. And I'm like, 'But wait, that's a cool song.'"

Such are the experiences of a 25-year-old man who only recently began listening to -- and liking -- rock and roll music. Johnston managed to make it through high school without hearing much rock, and hating the few bands (Van Halen and the Scorpions, for instance) he was exposed to. Being the son and younger brother of folk musicians, he was instead raised on bluegrass and country, the music of obscure acoustic practitioners. Rock and roll? He considered it banal, uninteresting, made for and by people who didn't respect the craft of songwriting and performance.

For him -- and a small cadre of record-buyers and musicians spread across the country -- rock and roll didn't exist until he heard a band from Missouri named Uncle Tupelo. When Johnston, whose sister is Michelle Shocked and father is Dallas musician-carpenter "Dollar" Bill Johnston, heard Tupelo's first album, 1990's No Depression, he finally began to like rock and roll. Uncle Tupelo's was a sound he found "acceptable" -- the combination of traditional acoustic (banjos, mandolins) and electric (guitar, bass) instruments enjoyable to the ears of someone who had spent the early part of his lifetime playing bluegrass festivals with his old man and folk shows with his big sister.

Not long after Johnston's exposure to Uncle Tupelo, Shocked -- who had worked with the band on her 1992 album Arkansas Traveler -- invited her brother to meet the group, the both of them hoping Uncle Tupelo would invite Johnston to join their ranks. They did, and he wound up a member of their touring band and as one of the key elements on Uncle Tupelo's farewell album Anodyne in 1993. And now, with many of those same men -- including Uncle Tupelo co-founder Jeff Tweedy -- he finds himself in a band called Wilco, which is perhaps the best rock and roll band in America right now. Even if it does contain a member who never much cared for the stuff.

To a certain hard-core constituency, those who like their country turned up to 11 and their rock played on banjo and mandolin, Uncle Tupelo evokes the same sort of mystique reserved for Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols. Though they were, by their own admission, a faceless band unknown to most, their four albums made between 1990 and 1993 stand as the Holy Grail to musicians and record-buyers who look to "alternative country" as rock's last, best hope.

These folks refer to themselves as being part of a movement, embracing the Bottle Rockets and Gram Parsons with equal enthusiasm, staking their claim like men and women first to the new territories. They trace their musical antecedents to the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, Crazy Horse, even the Band, and their time line extends to the likes of Nick Lowe's Cowboy Outfit, the Jayhawks, Jason and the Scorchers, the Bad Livers, Mary Karlzen, John Prine and the Bottle Rockets -- all artists who fit into several categories, and none at all. But above them all towers Uncle Tupelo, perhaps the greatest unknown influence on the modern-day rock scene.

From its inception, Tupelo co-founders Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were two guys enamored of traditional music but not rooted in tradition. The 27-year-old Tweedy grew up in a household with older brothers and sisters who listened to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, later discovering for himself British punk and new-wave bands such as the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Jam. It was only when he began working in a record store that he was introduced to the blues, country and bluegrass.

"You don't want to listen to everything you're selling," he says, "so you start listening to country records and folk records and digging through the jazz section.... I was just starting to realize that there is some continuity to [music], whether it's apparent or not. Through time, a lot of the same themes and a lot of the same types of songs are always going to be there, and there's really just different approaches and different sounds that make it any different."

And for four remarkable albums -- No Depression, Still Feel Gone, March 16-20, 1992 and Anodyne -- Tweedy and Farrar set out to embrace those different approaches, blending them into a surprisingly coherent amalgam of traditional sounds and a brand of rock not too distant from the music made by the Replacements or R.E.M. Singing of lands of paradise and pain, they weren't country or punk or even cowpunk, they weren't bluegrass or folk, and yet they were all of the above. In a music world where revolutions become trends become fads, Uncle Tupelo's albums even now sound timeless and brand-new all at once -- like the Who backing Bill Monroe, or the Clash if Johnny Cash were the frontman.

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.

A song such as "Casino Queen" is perhaps the most obvious example on A.M.; its opening guitar riff, penned by Bottle Rockets frontman (and former Uncle Tupelo roadie-sideman) Brian Henneman, is classic Keith Richards, derivative of "Honky Tonk Woman" without plagiarizing. From there, the song explores the same terrain as the Stones and the Faces, but with one minor addition that creates a major difference: behind the giant guitars and hoarse vocals, Johnston's fiddle whines like Bill Monroe sped up to 45 rpm, and the song becomes an entirely different entity, recalling Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" as much as anything else.

"I have trouble looking at a song I would write as a country song or a pop song or a rock song or whatever," Tweedy says. "I just feel like it's a song I wrote, and when we play it and when the other guys are into a song enough for us all to learn it, then it becomes a Wilco song. With Uncle Tupelo, there were some clear-cut lines as far as the approach we were going to take for a different type of song ....

"I always felt we wanted to be a band. If the Rolling Stones put out Beggars Banquet today, would they be a 'country-rock' band? I don't know. That's sort of silly. Everything's so subclassified, and there's so many genres of music people feel compelled to hype or not hype or discredit. Alternative country is a really hilarious term. C'mon."

Wilco plays at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Kevin Salem opens. Tickets are $8. Call 869-COOL for info.

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