Wilco's Jeff Tweedy knows a thing or two about rock journalism.
"The Flying Burrito Brothers have to be mentioned in any article about a country-rock band," notes the singer/guitarist. "It's like the Velvet Underground or Big Star. For rock critics, its a reference point. Which is fine. That's cool with me. It's just that I don't really hear that much of the Burrito Brothers in our music."
Of course, Tweedy's former band, the much-lauded Uncle Tupelo, wasn't a modern version of Gram Parsons's pioneering act, either--but that didn't stop reviewers from claiming otherwise. As for Wilco, its debut for Reprise Records, A.M., actually sounds like a celebration of rock-and-roll genres: "Casino Queen," for example, is a raunchy, honky-tonk barn-burner in the spirit of the Rolling Stones' "Tumbling Dice"; "I Must Be High" and "Box Full of Letters" sport a brilliant, AOR-guitar sheen; and the smooth electro-slide of "Blue Eyed Soul" references Seventies stalwarts Poco, not you-know-who. All things considered, dubbing Tweedy a Parsons clone would be akin to writing off the Beatles as a Chuck Berry tribute band.
Tweedy points out that he and the other musicians in Wilco (bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Jay Bennett, drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston) have exceedingly eclectic tastes. "We listen to a ton of records," he says. "Everybody in the band tries to turn each other on to new stuff all the time. I think people have this illusion that country-rock bands sit around listening to the Eagles all day and trying to emulate that whole thing. But we listen to as much stuff as possible, because we want to stay interested in music."
The history of Uncle Tupelo illustrates this contention. Formed in the late Eighties by Tweedy and school chum Jay Farrar, the outfit's first two offerings (No Depression and Still Feel Gone) were anything but twangy. On the contrary, they had more in common with Black Flag than with Clint Black. Both LPs were solid, if unimaginative, punk rock efforts that made little impact with listeners beyond the boundaries of St. Louis, Tupelo's hometown. Today, Tweedy looks on this punk period with a certain amusement. "We all liked punk rock when we were growing up," he explains, laughing. "But we'd go to St. Louis and see the `real' punks and come home feeling inferior.
"The best thing about punk rock back then was the diversity," he continues. "All the music was really open to interpretation--even the Cars were considered punk rock. The worst thing about it was this overwhelming desire to discount other kinds of music."
Specifically, Tweedy lamented the dismissal of the folk and country tunes that were such important parts of his and Farrar's formative years. When they finally grew bored with the punk mainstream, then, it was only natural that they'd seek out recordings by American musical masters such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Soon after, the players traded in their Marshall stacks for acoustic twelve-strings, banjos and mandolins.
Uncle Tupelo's third long player, entitled March 16-20, 1992, marked the band's turning point. Produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, 1992 was a tasteful, not to mention somber, collection of heartfelt folk songs ("Coalminers," "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down"), seminal country favorites (the Louvin Brothers' "Atomic Power") and dusty originals ("Wait Up" and the pleasingly anachronistic "Black Eye").
Taken as a whole, the disc's fifteen cuts helped pave the way for several of today's country-roots radicals, including the Geraldine Fibbers, the Palace Brothers and Denver's own 16 Horsepower. At the time, however, Tweedy says the last thing on Tupelo's collective mind was creating an influential recording. As he puts it, "The thought of making another `rock' record just seemed sort of silly. Once we became a rock band and started making rock records, we started feeling like we weren't accomplishing anything.
"1992 wasn't even going to be a full-length album, originally," he adds. "We only thought we had enough money to record an EP. When we got started, though, we really stripped things down and ended up getting more done than we thought we would."
The decision-makers at Reprise were pleased with the results: They signed Uncle Tupelo and issued its final album, Anodyne, in 1993. More fully realized than its predecessor, Anodyne found Tweedy, Farrar and the rest of Tupelo striking a clever synergy between the stark, musical imagery of 1992 and their previous, punkier works. Paradoxically, the mix of rural-sounding acoustic numbers such as "Slate" and "Acuff-Rose" and burlier electric blasts like "The Long Cut" resulted in what was easily one of the most cohesive, if overlooked, releases of that year. At its best, Anodyne captured the essence of early-Seventies country rockers while avoiding the self-indulgence that left much of their later music sounding so tepid. It comes as no surprise, then, when Tweedy expresses his admiration for Jackson Browne and his ilk. "I love that music," he confesses. "I love it, but I wouldn't put it on a pedestal over the original stuff--stuff like Don Gibson and George Jones. The stuff those artists have drawn on."
Most critics felt that Uncle Tupelo was poised to build on this tradition. But in December 1993, before the band could move on to bigger and better things, Farrar resigned. Tweedy says he is still shocked by Farrar's decision. "I honestly don't know why he quit," he insists. "You'd really have to ask him. I mean, over the years there have definitely been things that could have been seen as problems. But overall, they were all things we learned to deal with. I certainly don't hate the guy. It's just that most things were left unclear, and I have trouble putting them together without sounding like a dick."
If Tweedy harbors ill feelings toward his former songwriting partner, they certainly haven't affected his relationship with the rest of his bandmates. A few months after the breakup, Tweedy and the remaining Tupelo players entered the studio and recorded several demos for songs that wound up on A.M. According to Tweedy, keeping the group together after Farrar's departure seemed like the next logical step. "When Jay left, everyone expressed the same sort of thing--like, `Well, does this mean we all have to quit? Does this mean we can't play together?' And I was kind of looking at everybody and thinking, `No, it doesn't have to be that way at all.'"
After coming up with a new name, the Wilcos got to work writing fresh tunes, some of which Tweedy hopes to introduce to audiences during the band's current tour. "We just want to keep on playing and touring and learn as much material as we can as we go," he reveals. "Then we're going to turn into the Grateful Dead and never make any more records." He pauses a beat before adding, "Not really. Actually, everybody is really excited about the whole thing at this point.
"The approach we've stumbled onto is to stop not giving a shit and start caring more," he concludes. "The important thing is that everybody is happy and everybody is more communicative with each other. It's turned into this really grotesque boys' club."
And no Burritos allowed.
Wilco, with Kevin Salem. 9 p.m., Tuesday, May 23, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, $8.40, 447-0095 or 830-
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