Don't Call It Nothing

Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 6 - 1993 (Anodyne)

August 13, 2021 Lance Davis Season 1 Episode 6
Don't Call It Nothing
Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 6 - 1993 (Anodyne)
Show Notes Transcript

Don't Call It Nothing Episode 6 now live! We revisit 1993, the year Uncle Tupelo released the best rock album *and* best country album and did so facing up to the juggernaut that was suburban minivan country rock a la Garth Brooks and The Eagles. 

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Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]

Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and today we’re going back to 1993.

Before we dive in I wanna give a quick shout-out to Pete Sufka, who joined the Don’t Call It Nothing family this week at the $5 a month Good Beeble Level. Thank you Pete. If you dear listener wanna support DIY musicology at the $5 / $20 / $50 a month level go to and click on the Buy Me a Coffee! button right at the top of the page. Cool? Cool.

Now, I’ve spent a fair bit of time on here challenging boomer myths about classic rock, but turnabout is fair play, my friends. To act like Gen X also doesn’t have its debunkable lore would be silly at best, hypocritical at worst. This is true for even the leading edge of Gen X, which I’m gonna assume includes everyone listening to this podcast or should be listening to this podcast. For example, anyone who was even remotely paying attention to indie rock/college rock in the early ‘90s knows that Nevermind bumped Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the album charts. That happened on January 11, 1992, and “dethroned the King of Pop” was the phrase du jour. In fact, three weeks later Nevermind also bumped Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind off the charts. The King of the Hat Acts. Obviously, the symbolism was immense. Grunge defeated mainstream pop and mainstream country. We won. In your face, normies!

Only that’s not what happened. We didn’t win. And knowing how this all played out, you can argue that though Nirvana won, I’m not sure Kurt Cobain won. He most definitely outkicked his coverage and found himself in the unlikeliest of positions: the misfit prom king. But, was that a net positive? Magic 8-Ball says, “Outlook not so good.”

Let’s look at this from the 30,000 foot (view). That’s where the real story is. I’m gonna give you some stats and don’t worry about keeping track. I’ll sum up at the end. I just wanna give you the context. OK, on September 28, 1991, just a few days after Nevermind was released, Garth’s Ropin’ The Wind ascended to #1 on the album charts. Not the country charts. The pop charts. It was knocked off by Use Your Illusion II for a couple weeks, but went back to #1 on October 19 and stayed there for seven weeks. Then it’s Achtung Baby for a week, Dangerous for four, Nevermind for one, Ropin’ again for two, back to Nevermind for one, and then back again to Ropin’ for EIGHT weeks. When its run at the top was over Ropin’ The Wind had spent 18 of the previous 27 weeks at #1.

Garth then released The Chase and THAT album spent eight weeks at #1 in late 1992. In August ‘93, Brooks then released In Pieces and that spent five weeks at #1. When all was said and done, from late September 1991 to late October 1993 – just over two years – a Garth Brooks album held down the top spot on the pop album charts for 31 out of 100ish total weeks.

Please note, too, that smack dab in the middle of Garthapalooza, Billy Ray Cyrus introduced line dancing and “Achy Break Pelvis” into the American mainstream and white people were never the same. Even The Bodyguard soundtrack, the other massive record released in this period, was fueled by a Dolly Parton song. My friends, “we” didn’t win shit. Garth Brooks won. Mainstream country won. The normies won. To be fair, Dolly also won and she deserves all the love because she invested part of her earnings from Whitney’s cover (of “I Will Always Love You”) in a black section of Nashville. True story. Look it up.

Everything Cuts Against the Tide

Is it possible that we misinterpreted the significance of Nirvana’s mainstream breakthrough because it’s what we wanted to believe? I think so and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The need to feel like you have value is hardwired in us, so when a band you like inexplicably crashes the pop culture party it feels like vindication.

The thing is … the idea that Nirvana dethroned Michael Jackson obscures the fact that Garth Brooks and mainstream country dethroned both of them. “Black Or White” wasn’t the enemy. The “American Redneck Bar Association,” that was the enemy. Red hat, gun rack, fragile ass, antivax, flag-haggin, honkkky ass tonkers. I spoke last week about the conservative counter-revolution of the 1990s. Who the hell do you think they were listening to? That’s right. Hat heads like Garth Brooks. So, if you’re looking for actual signs of musical counter-COUNTER-revolution in the 1990s, than you need to go looking, not for grunge, but for country music refusing to play by boring as fuck Nashville rules. In other words, we need to talk about Uncle Tupelo.

That was Uncle Tupelo from November 11, 1993, at Slim’s in San Francisco with “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” a song about the music industry. Just kidding. Everyone knows it’s about white supremacy. That was recorded by hero of the Tupelo extended family, Shayne Stacy, you should check out his YouTube channel, 3.Cameras.and.a.Microphone. Quality live stuff, lots of Tupelo, and this audio might be his best. Max Johnston kills it on fiddle and Ken Coomer’s dropping a mean train beat, Jeff Tweedy’s vocal has the ideal rasp:scream ratio, and when Jay Farrar comes in with the low harmony at “I heard the voice of Jesus say” … perfection. 

This performance actually took place about a month after Anodyne came out. In fact, you’ll enjoy this, the album was released on October 5, 1993. The #1 album at the time? Garth Brooks’ In Pieces, which was displaced at #1 the following week by none other than In Utero. Yay us! Oh wait. In Pieces went back to #1 the week after. Which means that a Nirvana album twice knocked Garth off the top of the album perch only for Brooks to reclaim the top spot the following week. Nirvana basically had a halftime lead. Nothing wrong with that. I’d rather have a halftime lead than not have it, but you know. It’s symbolic.

But symbols can have real value. Which brings us back to Uncle Tupelo. There was so much written at the time – including by me, so I’m part of the problem, I’m complicit – that the band was extending the country rock tradition of everyone from Neil Young and Creedence to Buck Owens and Jason And The Scorchers. That much was readily acknowledged by all parties. But, how you FELT about the band, I think that broke along generational lines. For Gen Xers like myself, who were getting into country rock for the first time in our early 20s, UT was OUR band. We loved the precursors, of course, but that Uncle Tupelo was more or less our age mattered because their concerns felt like our concerns. I’m guessing members of Slobberbone, Drive-By Truckers, Grand Champeen, Two Cow Garage, and Glossary would agree. And as easy as it is for me to make fun of boomers for their rock star fetishes – the various cults of Lennon, Jagger, Richards, Dylan, Springsteen, etc. – those songwriters were writing for them. Those are their guys. The problem is that their guys are allowed to be “cultural icons” and our guys are marginalized and minimized.

This generational difference is perfectly illustrated by the editors of No Depression, the magazine that started publishing quarterly in 1995, graduated to bimonthly soon after, and went on a surprising 13-year run as a published entity. Still a presence online, too, so you have to consider the enterprise an American success story. Peter Blackstock, one of the editors, was born in ’66, which makes him an OG Gen Xer, but also someone who might be vulnerable to echoboomeritis. Grant Alden, the other editor, was born in ’62, which puts him solidly in the late boomer camp. You wouldn’t think four years would be that significant, but I think it is and anecdotally, this schism matches my experience. In 2007, Blackstock and Alden were part of a feature that ran in the Seattle Weekly called “Jukebox Jury.” It’s still online, I’ll link to it in the transcription. They had this exchange about Uncle Tupelo’s version of “No Depression.” 

Blackstock: We have to reference this song all the time. We have to explain that our (magazine) name comes from this Uncle Tupelo song from an album of the same name that [Uncle Tupelo] learned from Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers, who were covering this old Carter Family song from the 1930s, which sort of traces the history of where this song is coming from originally and how it got revived in recent years.

Alden: I think we had been publishing about two years before I actually owned any Uncle Tupelo records, though I can remember when Anodyne [1993] came into The Rocket office. I had heard about them and I was predisposed to like them. I played it at high volume and annoyed the office and then gave it to a writer who adored them. I thought, “Well, they’re not very good.”

[heavy sigh] WHAT???

That’s Uncle Tupelo from September 5, 1993, at the Music Café in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the old Carter Family song and title track from their 1990 debut. Look, Alden isn’t required to like anybody. But, don’t you find that quote strange and weirdly dismissive? If two men started a metal magazine and one of them said he’d been publishing two years before he owned a Metallica record and mehhh, you wouldn’t find that off-putting? This wasn’t the best publication for This was the ONLY publication for Option had a cover story on the genre in 1993 featuring Uncle Tupelo and Maria McKee, but that was a one-off. No Depression was it. And even in a random interview 13 years after their final show, Uncle Tupelo still can’t get full credit. It can’t be, “This Uncle Tupelo cover was so good that it made us go wanna track down the original,” which is exactly what happened. That’s what happened for everybody who heard that song. But no, just like with Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill last week, boomer gatekeepers can’t wait to go out of their fucking way to diminish, condescend, and gaslight the contribution of Gen Xers, “Ahh that’s cute you did a thing. But you’re not that good. Calm down.” 

Do You Want New Kid In Town or Do You Want The Truth?

In fact, Uncle Tupelo was our Velvet Underground. You heard me. Creedence is the better stylistic comp, sure. But, see if this sounds familiar. The Velvets had two albums that combined rock dissonance with a sly melodic underbelly, then released a quiet folkie stopgap, then released a final album featuring accessible, if contemporaneously out of step rock ‘n’ roll. Also consider context. What made the Velvets the Velvets was that they weren’t The Beatles. They went dark because The Beatles represented light. To be fair, we all know The Beatles went dark – “Helter Skelter,” “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” – but they were dilettantes dabbling, not covering themselves head to toe in shiny shiny leather. More importantly, The Beatles were the biggest goddamn band in the world and the Velvet Underground was … well … the opposite of that.

Fast forward to 1993 and while Garth Brooks himself wasn’t Beatles big, he was fucking massive. This is a man who bragged about being influenced by Journey and KISS, so competent, calculated, show businessy country music influenced by “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Gene Simmons was deemed by the mainstream country audience to be the platonic ideal. Keep in mind that throughout the decade, parallel with Brooks’ massive run up the charts, so too did The Eagles’ Greatest Hits (1971–1975). Per Wikipedia – so, obviously true – it was certified 12× platinum in August 1990, 14× platinum in 1993, 22× platinum in 1995, and 26× platinum in 1999. Folks, that’s Thriller numbers.

So, what does this mean? 

It means that we’ve fundamentally misunderstood the 1990s. It’s not that Garth Brooks wasn’t country. He was. But, he was also rock. It was baked into his arrangements and performance. The light show, the spectacle, that’s pure rock. Thus, the mainstream country audience was actually a country rock audience. The Eagles were the giveaway. If you’re doing Thriller numbers, whatever you’re playing IS the mainstream. And what The Eagles specialized in was safe, comfortable, inoffensive, country rock, not unlike Garth Brooks.

Given this milquetoast reality, root down American rock ‘n’ roll with traditional country instrumentation and an honest reckoning of the human condition was not only the opposite of Nashville’s fast food country, it was the most punk rock response possible. Farrar and Tweedy made the best rock album of 1993, the best country album of 1993, and inspired hundreds of bands to take up arms against the normalization of bland country rock — and bland country. The fact that choosing this route almost certainly guaranteed commercial failure was part of what made it punk rock. The punkest element of all, though, was Farrar’s absolute command of the country form. His version of the genre makes guys like Brooks, Henley, and Frey sound like the businessmen they always wanted to be.

That’s Uncle Tupelo, again from that fantastic Slim’s show on November 11, 1993, and that just might be the greatest Farrar vocal ever. The final track on Anodyne, “Steal The Crumbs” is a Farrar masterpiece as good as anything Dylan, Lennon, or Springsteen ever wrote and makes the Garth Brooks Vanilla Milkshake Experience sound like Chuck E Fucking Cheese. Anodyne is the record that spurred me into exploring the history of country music because it's country to the bone and accessible, yet not remotely commercial ("Clean Slate," "New Madrid," "High Water," and "Steal The Crumbs," all great examples). I love that Tweedy wrote a song with the lines, "Name me a song that everybody knows / And I betcha it belongs to Acuff-Rose," a reference to Nashville’s first country music publishing company, founded in 1942 by singer Roy Acuff and A&R man, Fred Rose (best known as Hank Williams' manager). The irony, of course, is that despite this lyrical touchstone there was 0% chance "Acuff-Rose" was ever ever EVER gonna get played on a Nashville radio station.

Of course, Anodyne is defiantly rock in Jay’s blistering Farrarmageddon lead guitar. His solos in "Chickamauga" (2:05-3:38), "The Long Cut" (1:22-1:50, 2:35-3:15) and "We've Been Had" (2:12-2:25) are wondrous jet engines filled with overtones and distortion. Let us also not forget Ken Coomer's heavy drums, which Tweedy admitted kept him focused. He told Greg Kot in Wilco: Learning How to Die:

“I’m amazed when I listen back to those records with Mike how cool the drumming actually is. He is totally self-taught and idiosyncratic, but his feel is dead-on. That’s the recording. But working out the nuts and bolts in rehearsal, his drumming could be like a shoe in a dryer. It was work sometimes to hear the kick drum because Mike wouldn’t play loud. And then Ken (Coomer) comes in and is just a powerhouse: tons of experience, tons of chops, and yet not so flashy that he can’t come down and play a country beat. As a bass player, I could finally relax. With Mike, I was playing and singing and hoping that I was playing somewhere near where the bass drum was. With Coomer there was no doubt where the bass drum was: it was right up my fucking ass.”
— Jeff Tweedy to Greg Kot, Wilco: Learning How to Die, 2004, p. 73

(FYI, throughout the podcast I refer to Kot’s book as Learning How to Live — instead of Die — because apparently the real title is too hard to remember. Sorry about that, Greg.)

Coomer wasn't the only new member of the band. John Stirratt, brother of Blue Mountain's Laurie Stirratt and Brian Henneman's replacement as Tupelo roadie/guitar tech joined on bass. Most critically, the band also enlisted the services of Max Johnston, best known at the time – if known at all – as Michelle Shocked's brother. He'd met Farrar and Tweedy on a short-lived Shocked tour with The Band and Taj Mahal when he was backing up his sister. He and the Tupelos would hang out after shows, jamming into the night on old country covers. Johnston is a supremely talented multi-instrumentalist and the album's MVP. In fact, his fiddle is the first sound you hear on Anodyne, mournfully sawing and mirroring Farrar's brooding resignation in "Slate." Max's dobro slides are the best part of "Fifteen Keys," where he plays the main riff, the melody in the chorus, and an eight-bar solo. And finally, how about that banjo hook in "New Madrid?”

Perhaps my favorite bit of Johnstonia is how his lap steel weaves with Lloyd Maines' pedal steel on the title track (“Anodyne”). Having two steels doesn't make any sense on paper, but it gives the song such a wobbly intoxication. It's like "Albuquerque" or "Tired Eyes" from Tonight's The Night, but with TWO Ben Keiths. So wonderful. The funny thing is that despite his heavyweight contributions, Max wasn't sure he was ready for Tupelo time.

"I was really nervous because I was wondering if I could even play in a rock band, but Jay and Jeff knew the music I knew and a lot of music that I should have known. I hadn't really listened to the Louvin Brothers or even Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. They turned me on to all of that stuff within the first few weeks and I started getting more comfortable with the idea of playing with them."
 –Max Johnston to Greg Kot,
Wilco: Learning How to Die, 2004, p. 75 

One of Anodyne's most charming features is the fact it was recorded live at Cedar Creek Studios in Austin. Where the March album was mostly live, it included a few overdubs. However, that album's relative spontaneity was a response to No Depression and Still Feel Gone, which were Overdub City. Anodyne was a reaction to all of the above, as well as "the growing trend in the early '90s to construct recordings piece by piece on the computer," which is what Farrar says in the liner notes to the 2003 Anodyne reissue. So much so that it contains no overdubs and a handful of mistakes. Not that the band wanted mistakes, per se, but if a few clams was the price to pay for uninhibited rawness, then so be it. No other track symbolized the band's studio vérité aesthetic quite like their duet with Doug Sahm. "Give Back The Key To My Heart" originally appeared on Sahm's 1976 LP, Texas Rock For Country Rollers, my favorite album in the Sahm catalog and a title that could've been apropos for Anodyne. This was music between genres. Music that checked multiple boxes but fit comfortably in none. In other words, it was rock 'n' roll, and few people have epitomized that free spirited musical polyglot quite like Sir Doug. 

In his 2013 memoir, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs: Portraits from a Musical Life, Farrar says of Sahm:

"Doug's conviction and enthusiasm for music was palpable, contagious, and always audible. In 1993, while recording with Uncle Tupelo, Doug hit a microphone stand with his guitar headstock (which can be heard on the recording) while getting into the groove. But no matter – it's all about the groove anyway. That was the lesson learned."
 –Jay Farrar, 2013, p. 120

The combination of new band members and live recording led to UT largely abandoning the stop-start arrangements that had made those first two records so much fun. In Kot's book about Wilco, Tweedy says of the Anodyne material, "There was more of a pop element or a buoyancy that just didn't seem to be part of Uncle Tupelo before. But, through John (Stirratt's) playing and Ken's playing and my songs at the time, it was just more tuneful and less contrived arrangement-wise." (Kot, Wilco: Learning How to Die, 2004, p. 79). I agree about the pop element, especially in a song like "No Sense In Lovin,' which clearly presages A.M. However, I strongly disagree about the idea that the old arrangements were contrived. As Tweedy himself admitted, Heidorn wasn't a heavy player like Coomer. Early Tupelo songs featured Minutemen-esque stop-start arrangements because that played to Heidorn's strengths. That's not being contrived. That's being a smart bandleader. Now, maybe by the time of Anodyne Tweedy (and the band) had evolved past that need for the stop-start. Fair enough. But, that doesn't retroactively make those early songs contrived. They were honest representations of UT 1.0 and the more stripped-down arrangements were honest representations for UT 2.0. Both great, but great for different reasons. 

That’s basically the title track of this podcast and my forthcoming book, Don’t Call It Nothing: The Lost History of ‘90s Roots, Rap & Rock ‘n’ Roll. Tweedy sings,

“Don’t call it nothing
 This might be all we’ll ever have”

That’s my mission statement right there. It might also be the Gen X motto [laughs]. “Nothing” is a track from their 1991 album, Still Feel Gone, one of the greatest albums ever, as is Anodyne. And I’ve gone all this way discussing Anodyne’s undervalued cultural importance and its deceptively revolutionary musical acumen, but I haven’t even bothered to mention that it’s all that AND one of the greatest breakup albums you’re ever gonna hear. Richard Byrne of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the first journalist to champion the band in print, said to Greg Kot in Wilco: Learning How to Die:

"With Uncle Tupelo, it was turning into more like The Beatles, where Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison were bringing in their songs at the end and competing for space on the albums. It's harder to sustain a band dynamic in that situation. Especially when you have record company machinery saying, 'I like his song better,' and making it the single. To someone like Jay, who is suspicious of record label politics anyway, that's going to be the sound of fingernails on the chalkboard. Jay didn't like what he saw coming down the road and I think Jeff loved it."
 –Richard Byrne to Greg Kot, Wilco: Learning How to Die, 2004, p. 87

Speaking of great for different reasons, that was Jay and Jeff in 1993.  Where Farrar was employing bloody Civil War metaphors to describe his state of mind ...

"Chickamauga's where I've been
 Solitude is where I'm bound"
 – Chickamauga

... Tweedy was hopeful that time apart would reignite the passion, even if he suspected that he was the only one who wanted that to happen.

"Now if it's to be
 And if you still believe
 Come on let's take the long cut
 I think that's what we need"
 –The Long Cut

"If you come back for a while
 You could see
 Exactly what you've always meant to me
 But you don't wanna know"
 –No Sense In Lovin’

However, Farrar was steadfast. He didn’t wanna know. Uncle Tupelo was done.

"Can't seem to find common ground
 I can see the sand and it's running out"
 "No sign of reconciliation
 It's a quarter past the end"
 –Steal The Crumbs

Farrar was under no illusions.

“It was the kind of situation that just wasn’t going to end smoothly. The fact that Jeff and I each wrote songs separately and essentially shared a band to record them was the primary reason the band split. When we started, we agreed to share the songwriting credits in the spirit of Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, and Strummer/Jones, which initially led to a few collaborations, but ultimately led to feelings of living a lie, as we wrote nearly completely separate. The irony is that we knew The Beatles and Clash had ended in splits. I think that under the circumstances we both put forward a good effort in encouraging each other to write songs and remain in the same band for as long as we did – seven years in Uncle Tupelo and three years before that (in the Primatives).”
— Jay Farrar to Anthony DeCurtis in the Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology liner notes, January 2002

As much as I love Anodyne, you can make a decent argument that it's Uncle Tupelo only by contractual obligation. One of the reasons I chose a Still Feel Gone song for the title of this book – other than the fact it fits perfectly – is that it's the apex of the Farrar/Tweedy/Heidorn relationship. Heidorn may not have been an according to Hoyle great drummer, but he was the glue that kept the band together for as long as it did and when he left the infrastructure slowly disintegrated. But, instead of lamenting the band's demise, I choose to celebrate the fact that Uncle Tupelo gave us one final, magical album before leaving the building for good. 

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Talk to ya next time when we visit 1994!