Rocks Off is never really not on an Uncle Tupelo kick, but it sure came flooding back after he heard "New Madrid" on Fred Imus' Saturday-morning Trailer Park Bash satellite-radio show last weekend. Even among such future alt-country touchstones as "Acuff/Rose," "The Long Cut" and killer Doug Sahm duet "Give Back the Key to My Heart," "New Madrid" has always been Rocks Off favorite song on the late St. Louis band's final - and probably best - album, 1993's Anodyne. Only "Gun," from 1991's Still Feel Gone, keeps it from being his favorite Uncle Tupelo song, period.
Spurred by a loping banjo lick - played by Max Johnston, now of the Gourds - "New Madrid" is one of Jeff Tweedy's best Tupelo-period lover's laments, as well as one of the very few UT songs to still appear regularly on Wilco's setlist. His lyrics contain several references to the earthquakes near New Madrid, Missouri, in 1811 and 1812, still thought to be the biggest quakes in U.S. history. Had the Richter Scale been around back then, seismologists believe they would have registered around an 8.0, a category appropriately designated "megaquake." They were severe enough to alter the course of the Mississippi River - hence the line "Rivers burn, then run backwards."
But in the song, the only quaking going on is in Tweedy's heart. Perhaps the object of his "New Madrid" affections perished in the quakes ("Shake my baby and please bring her back"; "Death won't even be still"), but the imagery of lovers strolling around a fountain, trucks rolling in at dawn and Mr. Browning's mysterious prediction has soundtracked many of Rocks Off's most beloved daydreams. Especially when, as Tweedy's opening line says, they're disasters.
Special shout-out to Bill Davis of the Austin band Underwood, who used to play "New Madrid" especially for Rocks Off at shows, and duetted with him many, many times in all states of sobriety at various after-hours affairs in various living rooms and garages all over the state capital. So come on back to New York City...
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.