How the West Was Ween

Gene and Dean Ween take on country music and live to tell the tale.

In 1994 Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, better known to the world at large as Gene and Dean Ween, issued Chocolate and Cheese, an Elektra Records release that won critical praise, significant radio airplay (for the groovy cut "Voodoo Lady") and frequent exposure on that repository of cultural significance, Beavis and Butt-head. The success of the opus clearly primed the populace as a whole for another wry shot of rock, rhythm and blues and avant-garde-friendly experimentation from these spiritual brothers. So why, oh why, did Ween follow up its commercial breakthrough with this year's 12 Golden Country Greats, an album whose title is numerically inaccurate (it contains only ten cuts) but spiritually on the mark?

"We were just going to do it for the experience," says Gene. "We didn't know if we were going to use it or not. But when it was finished, we decided to put it out. We thought, 'Wow, this could be counted as our next record for Elektra. We could make a lot of dough for this.'"

Doubt it. Gene and Dean may have more than a passing familiarity with recreational chemicals (they speak more openly about their drug experiences than anyone this side of Timothy Leary), but they're not so dazed as to believe that a long-player consisting of countrified parodies (plus a few ditties that come within spitting distance of sincerity) would rocket them onto the rock pantheon alongside Eddie Vedder and Bono. Truth be told, Country Greats (produced by auteur Ben Vaughn) is pretty much of a lark that demonstrates the boys' complete disinterest in playing the music-industry game.

When pressed, Gene fesses up to his actual goal--or more accurately, his lack of an actual goal--for the package. "The intention of this record was not really to sell mega-millions. That's why we put it out in July, a time when you never want to put out a record--unless you're Van Halen and you know it's going to sell no matter when you put it out. As far as record sales and hype, all the college kids are home for the summer and they're not really buying anything. So this wasn't supposed to be a blockbuster record. It was just something cool that our fans could have, you know? We didn't even make a video for this record."

That's too bad, since now it's unlikely that we'll get the chance to see Gene and Dean singing alongside the Jordanaires, the Elvis Presley background singers who contribute their unmistakable harmonies to tracks with titles like "Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain." This tune, a sonic dead ringer for Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman," is indicative of the Ween boys' approach. Musically, it's well-structured and tidy, with nifty playing by a crew of gen-u-wine Nashville sidemen such as Charlie McCoy and Hargus "Pig" Robbins. But the lyrics--well, the lyrics include random observations that affectionately tweak C&W conventions. For instance? "I think I spent the dog-food money/But he'll love me just the same."

"Piss Up a Rope" ("You're up shit's creek/ With a turd for a paddle") is considerably less subtle; its cheerfully misogynistic references to oral sex and hygiene problems would no doubt put a kink in the colons of Loretta Lynn fanciers. Tex Ritter aficionados will be equally offended by "Fluffy," a faux-weeper about a mutt who spends most of his time chewing on his leg ("Why'd you do it on the porch?"). But "Japanese Cowboy," "Pretty Girl" and most of the rest of Country Greats demonstrate that these guys sincerely like country music--a point Gene repeatedly underlines. "This isn't just a shtick," he says. "We have a lot of respect for country music--like Merle Haggard and all those guys from the Fifties and Sixties."

However, Gene's praise dries up as soon as contemporary country is mentioned. "It's pretty bad," he declares. "These new guys find some stupid line that an older country musician would have thrown away in one breath--something like, 'All I need is my truck and my farm'--and they base a whole song on it. There's nothing else; it's just ridiculous." After a pause, he adds, "New country music is more of a parody of country music than anything we could come up with."

Gene is selling himself short. Although he and Dean are only in their mid-twenties, they've been collaborating on songs--some farcical, some relatively straight-faced, most somewhere between these two extremes--for a dozen years. They met twelve years ago while attending a typing class at New Hope-Solebury Junior High in their hometown of New Hope, Pennsylvania, and promptly realized that they had a frightening amount in common. "We started exchanging records," Gene remembers. "He gave me some punk-rock records and I gave him Prince records, Devo records, a Laurie Anderson record. We were both really into music, and from there on, we just freaked out on it. At first we weren't really friends, but that changed when we started recording. Recording has been part of our friendship from day one, which is pretty interesting.

"There's Ween recordings from 1984. Most of the stuff back then was crap--screaming and open-tuned guitars--but it's all there. Hopefully someday we'll do a boxed set--an unreleased boxed set, like the Dylan bootleg stuff. We could fill up four or five discs, easy."

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