Pop Life

Can't Get It Out of My Head: "New Madrid"

Wilco, "New Madrid," live at the Fox Theater, Boulder, Colorado, May 1995

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...

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray