By Roy Kasten
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By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
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By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
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One interpretation in particular both clarifies and transforms the soul of the original song: "Steal the Crumbs," as interpreted by Dolly Varden, whose lead singer, Steve Dawson, first saw Uncle Tupelo in the early years, at a tiny club with no one in attendance. "I said to Jay at the end of their set that I thought he and his brother sang great together," Dawson recalls. "He looked at me crossly and said, 'He's not my brother.'"
"When we were asked to contribute a song," Dawson continues, "I thought it would be fun to do a sort of 'Al Green meets Uncle Tupelo' kinda thing, and I went in search of the song of theirs that seemed to best lend itself to what I wanted to do. I know that Jay Farrar is a big soul music fan, so I suppose that had something to do with wanting to do it this way." As the song ends, Dawson chants the line "No more will I see you" with a rapture at once light-years beyond Farrar's terminal intensity but still somehow inspired by that passion. Finding a place Uncle Tupelo could never go -- the sensual plane of soul music -- the band offers, finally, the truest tribute.
A good cover, we all know, has something to do with making the song one's own -- but that cliché only holds true if the owner can muster the passion and imagination that made the original song worth covering to begin with. The Mary Janes do just that with "Slate," the first song on Uncle Tupelo's final album, Anodyne, and one of their most harrowing and beautifully harmonized. Singer Janas Hoyt doesn't just sound like she knows what lines like "Who could carry that heavy load?/I really thought it would matter" mean: She sounds like she wrote them.
"I became an Uncle Tupelo fan when I joined the Vulgar Boatmen," Hoyt says. "The Silos and Uncle Tupelo and the Vulgar Boatmen were all kind of the same band to me. The details were different, but there was a similar altruism, maybe, a love of folk, as in real life-living, not as in banjos or mandolins, but the folk of playing in a live circumstance, being a troubadour. The sense that the Sex Pistols could also be folk music."
Folk, that unbearably slippery term, was central to Uncle Tupelo's resonance in the '90s and remains a key to their endurance nearly a decade on. Covering, playing something you've heard -- whether on record, on the family porch or onstage at a bar -- is the quintessential folk act. Hoyt is right: What was folk about the band wasn't the banjos and mandolins. It was the way their songs seeped deeply into a community, however small in the end, took root, were shared, covered, inspired further songs, further music.