What Hath Uncle Tupelo Wrought?
Alternative Country's Second Wave
Does anyone know if the Cosmic American Music News is still being published? I haven't seen an issue in quite a while, but if it is, the editors and writers must be going crazy about now.
If you're unfamiliar with it, CAMN is or was a Gram Parsons fanzine. Anything that even remotely smacked of being influenced by the patron saint of country-rock found its way into CAMN's pages. And they must be going crazy because, for the first time in a while, there are probably more bands out there than they can keep up with. And for the first time since Parson's death, their chosen field of coverage suddenly looks rather mainstream.
These days, it seems like Parsons worshipers can be found on nearly every corner. Country-rock is definitely back, including here in Austin, where we naturally have some contributors to the fray. But they're no longer just toiling away in folk music clubs for tips -- the many figurative sons and daughters of Gram are suddenly seeing themselves climb up into the realm of major labels, hit records, and something larger than cult followings.
You remember country-rock. It was always something of a fuzzy, nebulous term, but for our purposes, it was that freakish child born of the Sixties roots revival, when acid-dropping, pot-smoking hippies decided that folk music had as much -- or more -- to offer them as rock. The honest, gut-level simplicity of bluegrass, blues, and ballad singers appealed to their populist sentiment (despite the fact that the populace often scowled at their peace-and-love culture). And in 1968, the Byrds, with Parsons in their midst, forever changed the face of redneck music with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the first major venture of the long-haired crowd into the realm of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and George Jones.
But while Merle was a bit distrusting of the strange new following -- and a Grand Ole Opry audience was downright unfriendly -- the new concept mushroomed when Parsons and Chris Hillman (and later Michael Clarke) left the Byrds and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a group that quickly found acceptance with kindred spirits like the Band, and became the precursor to the likes of Poco and the Pure Prairie League (and, some contend, the Eagles, although this writer doesn't really see the connection). The narrow confines of traditional music was invaded by a style that thrived on new experiences.
Twenty years later, Parsons is gone, his contemporaries have gray hair, and musicians who were born during that era are now in the prime of their careers. And, as expected, many want to revisit the music with which they grew up.
"Many" is the key word here. Although hardly alone, Missouri's Uncle Tupelo has been the main plower of country-rock soil over the past few years. They moved up from minor-label, indie-rock obscurity to the exposure that being on Sire, a division of Warner Bros., could offer, culminating in the success of Anodyne, their last album (recorded here in Austin). They began pulling others along with them, most notably the Jayhawks, and then, at the height of their success, they inexplicably broke up. Jay Farrar just up and left the band, setting the stage for the second mushrooming of country-rock. Farrar started up Son Volt, while the rest of Uncle Tupelo went off as Wilco, and, if record sales are any indication, the move may have been good for all involved.
Of course, there's nothing like record sales to start a feeding frenzy with music industry executives, and now there's Blue Rodeo, Blue Mountain, the Bottle Rockets, and the Geraldine Fibbers all asking for a slice of the pie. Locally, a buzz is snowballing for the Gourds, who definitely have the talent to compete on a national scale. But from where did this parade of latter-day Burritos come? Have they been around, or are they opportunistic musicians jumping on the wave? As anyone who understands the enduring strength of roots music knows, it's the former; it's just taken the larger public this long to catch on.
"I've been friends with Blue Mountain for some time," says Farrar. "Uncle Tupelo started out playing with an earlier incarnation of Blue Mountain [the Hilltoppers], actually. All these bands have been around. The Bottle Rockets evolved from a band called Chicken Truck. From Blue Mountain to the Bottle Rockets to the Jayhawks, they've all been around for some time. It's the higher level of exposure, which is great. It's great to see your friends doing well."
Blue Mountain singer and guitarist Cary Hudson says, "Blue Mountain has been around for about three years, but before that I and [bassist] Laurie Stirratt were in the Hilltops with John [Stirratt, Laurie's brother, now with Wilco], for probably four years. The Jayhawks have been around for a long time, the guys in Wilco have been around for a while. This kind of roots music is always there, and occasionally the market pays attention to it."
Most of these musicians share similar origins -- both with each other and the original country-rockers -- in their path towards country music. The rock part of the equation usually came first, with a careful avoidance of country for its uncool connotations, but then, as their musical horizons broadened, they saw the value of worlds beyond loud electric guitars.
"Where we're from [rural Mississippi], if you're growing up and you're a hip kid, you don't listen to country," says Hudson. "But at the same time, you're getting it through osmosis. When I was growing up, I played in country bands because there wasn't anybody else to play with in my town. I was the only rock & roll guy in the whole town; the guys I went to school with didn't play. When I finally did get in the Hilltops, it was a rock band, but we started listening to country -- stuff like Hank Williams, Sr., Bill Monroe, early Johnny Cash."
He also heard the first wave of country-rock growing up. "I was a fan of the Band, and I kind of consider Creedence Clearwater Revival a part of that scene. I like Lynyrd Skynyrd a lot, they were a great country-rock band, they covered Jimmie Rodgers really well. I think our experience was growing up out in the sticks, growing up with late-Seventies/early-Eighties music, which went from Lynyrd Skynyrd through the Replacements, and then after that getting an interest in old country stuff from the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and then kind of mixing all that up together. I think that's the experience of a lot of the guys you're writing about."
For others, it may have been a little different. The Gourds' Kevin Russell, despite comparisons of his group to the Band, says, "I've listened to two or three albums by them, but it's not that prevalent in our sound. I think it just sort of came to us independently. I bring country into the band with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, but other band members aren't that country."
Blue Rodeo don't hail from "the sticks," as they're originally from Canada, but it was their time spent in the New York scene that affected them profoundly. "Rock music is a filter for other musics," says singer Jim Cuddy. "For us, it was Ned Sublett, he was into the New York poet thing, the SoHo poets, but he had a big country half, he had a lot of funny songs about cattle mutilation and cowboys secretly being fond of each other. We saw that in 1981, and that's what made us Blue Rodeo. We thought, "That's great," because we didn't just want to be the Burrito Brothers, it seemed like we could translate anything into the rock structure."
While a lot of this scene seems to center around the St. Louis-area bands of Uncle Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets, and Blue Mountain, Wilco bassist John Stirratt said Austin figures prominently into the new sound. In fact, Lloyd Maines' guest appearance on steel guitar is found throughout Wilco's debut, A.M.
"There're so many [people] from Austin like Joe Ely and Doug Sahm," says Stirratt, "People for whom genres didn't make a difference, they crossed over all types. I think [legendary producer] Jerry Wexler called Sahm `the man standing at the crossroads of American rock.' Nothing mattered. There were no rules. He would go from Ornette Coleman free jazz to straight country. I think that's the thing about Texas music that was always an allure to us. I think maybe bringing in punk rock was acceptable to us after hearing that."
About Maines, Stirratt says, "We worked with him on the last Uncle Tupelo record, and we were all into the Joe Ely records, especially the first one for me. We said, `Couldn't we get him?' He brought in this -- I don't want to say paternal -- but he brought a great reverence that we really loved. He was really a pleasure to work with."
Of course, with any movement, there will always be some journalist who wants to document it. Stepping quickly to the fore are Seattle citizens Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock, the latter of whom will be remembered as the Austin American-Statesman's folk music columnist and frequent Chronicle contributor. With the first issue of their new magazine No Depression, an "alternative country quarterly," they have presented the sharpest-looking effort yet to focus in on this particular field. Other contenders have been fanzines, including Cheryl Cline's Twangin' and my own now-defunct The Feedlot, but No Depression definitely has a clearer eye towards the rock end.
No Depression's name comes from three sources: an old Carter Family song, the first album by Uncle Tupelo, and a music message folder in the American Online internet service, all bearing that title. The latter was the main genesis for the magazine, originally started as a forum for Uncle Tupelo fans, though it quickly became apparent that there was more to talk about than that one band.
"Grant was the managing editor of The Rocket, a biweekly music mag [in Seattle], and he mentioned to me one day that he was really getting into a lot of alternative country lately," says Blackstock. "He's mainly known as the authoritative grunge writer in Seattle, but he's understandably gotten a little sick of the stuff that has come out of that camp in recent years. He was listening to stuff like Tarnation and Freakwater, and finding it really refreshing, and I told him about the folder on America Online, and he said we ought to start a magazine. I just thought he was kidding... but before I knew it, the ball was in motion."
Blackstock shares the same link that connects all the musicians -- he has come over to country lately. His beat at the Statesman was the songwriter scene, as I was handling the Statesman's country coverage at the time. But he soon found that our not-so-separate interests had merged into one genre.
"I've always liked alternative rock and singer-songwriters, and where you get the best mix of that these days is in the alternative country field," he says. "Most of the really good songwriters are working in the country, non-mainstream/non-Nashville vein. And I've gotten more and more interested in classic country music as well. I'm not sure how or why. It may just be a matter of discovering where this stuff comes from, the roots of American music. That part has been a learning process for me, and a real rewarding one. I never really liked country music at all when I was growing up."
Despite the enduring roots appeal, it would be wise to just view this whole phenomenon as a wave. One must wonder how much fiddle and steel guitars the rock market can bear before the fickle public moves on to the next thing. After all, one generation has already seen its country-rockers climb the charts and then fade again. The musicians are aware of this, and all agreed that they aren't taking their success for granted or as any prediction for bigger things to come.
"You know," says Hudson, "the honest-to-God truth is that I could care less about that kind of stuff. We just put out our first nationally distributed record, and we're at the bottom rung of the whole ladder. We make enough money to live off of, which is all we ever worried about in the first place. We don't have to work day jobs."n
Wilco plays a late show at Liberty Lunch Friday, November 17, and Son Volt plays Liberty Lunch November 29.
Lee Nichols has been covering alternative country music for eight years and is now going into semi-retirement before it gets too trendy.