The Country of Rock and Roll

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky