Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut No Depression was a lousy way to start a musical revolution. Taking everything they'd learned from their beloved Gram Parsons and Replacements records, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy strived to create a country-rock synthesis and wound up just making a mess. For all its youthful exuberance, the record was sick with sloppy hooks, cliches, and tentative vocals. The first-album mistakes were forgivable; by 1993's swan song Anodyne, the St. Louis band had molded its sound into something richer and truer to both honky-tonk and post-punk. Despite obvious shortcomings, No Depression deserves a bit of slack. Not even its makers could have known that it would become a talisman for a genre that would grow from an AOL discussion folder to a magazine to a cult to a full-blown culture.
Not that Uncle Tupelo invented country-rock; the relationship was there ever since Buck Owens and Merle Haggard started playing electric guitar. But Uncle Tupelo was one of the first modern bands to proudly acknowledge the interrelationship. Until then, country's presence in rock was limited to the one-off experiment (Elvis Costello's Almost Blue, Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, R.E.M.'s "[Don't Go Back to] Rockville"), the great album ignored in its own time (The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin), or anesthetized adult-contemporary pop with a slight twang (the entire Eagles catalog). No Depression, if nothing else, was an admission of how much rock and country owed each other. The record opened the floodgates for alt-country true believers who were weaned on post-punk. They didn't grow up in Nashville, Texas, or Bakersfield, but in Uncle Tupelo's urban and suburban Midwest.
That the bands found a haven in Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis isn't that surprising, really. They were some of the last urban centers left that were unburdened by a deep country history. There were no Buck Owenses or Lefty Frizzells lurking in the past; most musicians in the late '80s just wanted to avoid playing like yet another damned HYsker DY knockoff. There was no ossified country music establishment either: "Fuck this town," Chicagoan Robbie Fulks sang of Nashville on last year's South Mouth, proclaiming it the center of a "moron market" concerned more with moving units than preserving the traditions of honky-tonk or Western swing.
Fulks has earned his right to complain. Across two albums on the Chicago "insurgent country" label Bloodshot, he's proved himself a brilliant songwriter, a master of both the genre's irony and dark humor. Employing a brash, resonant voice that hearkens back to flattop-era George Jones, songs such as "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)" and "The Buck Starts Here" are carefully crafted tales of loss and frustration. It's a talent that even a blind and deaf music establishment couldn't ignore forever, so it's a sort of poetic justice that his third album, Let's Kill Saturday Night, was recorded in Nashville for a major label. And, as if to thwart the assumptions of the company men who contracted him, it's also his first album to step away from the stylistic conventions he'd used earlier in his career; his songs now employ volume feedback nearly as much as the twang and lyrical craft he got hired for.
It's a balance he's comfortable striking. The excellent title track, so powerful a response to Jones' "I've Got Five Dollars and It's Saturday Night" that New York's Five Chinese Brothers covered it a year before Fulks recorded it himself, blasts out its broke-but-fun-loving frustrations passionately. And Fulks' amplified songs, such as "Little King" and "She Must Think I Like Poetry," are dense, punkish howls. His genius is still in the slow, acoustic lament, exemplified by the tale of religious conflict in "God Isn't Real" or the bluesy stomp of "Pretty Little Poison," a duet with Lucinda Williams, another songwriter who clawed her way to Nashville. The sense of doom and foreboding reaches its peak in "Night Accident," where Fulks takes on the role of a car crash survivor: Sitting in the passenger side of a vehicle flipped onto the railroad tracks, he speaks to his dead friend in the driver's seat. With just enough time before the train comes, he confesses sleeping with his friend's wife, his agony looming "as vengeful as hands on a crippled man's throat, silently tightening their hold / As sure as the path of the 5:19, as down through the valley it rolls."
If Fulks' own album is shot through with a chilly feeling of dread, his vocals on Bob Wills' "Across the Alley From the Alamo" are beautifully carefree; that howl of his that's usually in the service of death and misery works just as well when singing guileless hidey-hos. The song appears on Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a country-tribute group founded by Chicago-based Mekon Jon Langford, who since 1985's alt-country touchstone Fear and Whiskey has moved further away from his British punk roots into a country-music re-education program. The Cosmonauts are his attempt to recover Wills & His Texas Playboys from the dustbin of history, with a core group built on members drawn from fellow Mekons, Langford's cowpunk side project the Waco Brothers, and groove-rockers Poi Dog Pondering.
The vocals are handled by a wide array of singers, who function as object lessons in the commingling of punk and country: Alejandro Escovedo, former guitarist in Austin's True Believers ("San Antonio Rose"), Lubbock-bred Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore ("Trouble in Mind"), and the Handsome Family's Brett Sparks, whose joking vocal tone works perfectly on "Roly-Poly." Unlike the Cosmonauts' highly interpretive album of Johnny Cash covers released last year, the Wills record stays close to the sound and spirit of the originals; the musicians seem so in awe of Wills that very little is embellished, and none of the vocalists dares to try one of his trademark "Ahh-haa!" introductions. It's an honorable record, its songs covered humbly and honestly, capturing the joy and enthusiasm that pervade Wills' music.
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Wills himself makes for an interesting alt-country figurehead. A sort of country radical during his band's World War II-era heyday (and onetime owner of the Longhorn Ballroom on Industrial Boulevard), Wills was a relentless experimenter who drew heavily from the brass horns of jazz and Texas border-radio mariachi, and he was the first country act who dared to place a drum kit at the Grand Ole Opry. If a lust for rewriting the genre's rules is the hallmark of alt-country, then you couldn't ask for a better mentor. Fooling around with tradition too much is a dangerous thing, though, and Son Volt's third album, Wide Swing Tremolo, falls victim to it; frontman Jay Farrar is now flailing away at tradition so randomly, he's making the same mistakes he did early on with Uncle Tupelo, trying on so many influences at once, he's having trouble corralling them.
On Son Volt's 1995 debut masterpiece Trace, the quartet jumped into the dark truths and soulfulness of country and came up with a blissful, hooky, and deeply sincere record. Last year's Straightaways started showing some creative cracks, which become patently obvious on Tremolo: The band's stabs at Southern rock ("Straightface," "Flow") and bluegrass-styled muttering ("Carry You Down") sound forced and unconvincing, while odd, nearly psychedelic instrumental throwaways such as "Jodel" (nearly atonal harmonica) and "Chanty" (processed acoustic guitar, played backward at points) only add to the confusion. There are moments that come close to the strengths of Trace, particularly the gentle feedback fuzz that graces "Strands," or the quietly dramatic lament "Streets That Time Walks," but where once Farrar sounded tragically worn, now he simply sounds sleepy. Worse, Farrar's greatest asset was as a storyteller, singing about the fears and passions of modern living, but he's now become nearly inscrutable. "Say hello to the blue side hanging around / Didn't think it'd matter, just force of habit," he sings. Well, um, howdy.
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman and Farrar's foil in Uncle Tupelo, has no such concerns. As part of Golden Smog, his occasional side-project collaboration with Gary Louris and Marc Perlman of Minneapolis' Jayhawks, he finds a place to kick his feet up and relax, having focused his serious work with Wilco and his magnificent collaboration with Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie's ghost on Mermaid Avenue. A sort of Midwestern country-rock supergroup that once featured the Replacements' Tommy Stinson and Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, the lineup now includes Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, and the music they make on Weird Tales is the very definition of repose.
Tweedy's own contributions are the charming, breezy rock of "I Can't Keep From Talking" and the folk-tinged epistle "Please Tell My Brother," but Louris is the only one who seems to have saved truly great songs for the sessions, particularly the lonesome plea of "Jane" and the heartbreaking, piano-laced closer "Jennifer Save Me"; sounding precariously close in phrasing to the Replacements' "Here Comes a Regular," "Jennifer" is also the moment where the band's punk influences become apparent. That's traditional for alt-country, though: It's about bands coming to terms with their youth, looking at what came well before them, and trying to make it mean something in the present, even if they fall flat on their face in the process. It's a story of successes and failures, but always a constant searching. Precisely the kind of story you can wrap a country song around.