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Steal the Crumbs

Some so-called friends pay tribute to Uncle Tupelo

The legacy of the short-lived Uncle Tupelo is too near to gauge, but it's unlikely the Bellevillians' influence, even if frequently overstated, will fade any time soon. Any time a Midwestern rock band takes a hit of twang, Uncle Tupelo, rightly or wrongly, will be fingered as the dealer. This coming year will mark the tenth anniversary of the band's dissolution; this past year, the songs have been reissued and anthologized (mercifully, sans boxed set). Internet discussion groups keep rattling on about Uncle Tupelo. Every issue of No Depression still employs UT's song titles in the table of contents. And a few good bands (Slobberbone, the Bottle Rockets, the Drive-By Truckers) owe much of their fan base, if not their existence, to UT, though they've managed to make lasting contributions to American music by outgrowing the band's shadow.

And now, Uncle Tupelo has not one, but two tribute albums, which means, at the very least, that it's not just Internet cultists or No Depression freelancers who still care about the band. But tributes aren't, unequivocally speaking, good things. For the artists these albums celebrate (in publicity-correct jargon), tributes are the surest sign that a) you're old, b) you're history or c) you're dead. For those who buy them, even the best tributes are mostly an obligation. They're a source of affirmation, to see if those who pay homage -- singers and bands you don't love (you haven't even heard of half of them) -- will confirm that your love for Springsteen, Costello, Harrison or Parton (they've all had tribute CDs this year) hasn't been solipsistic, hasn't been in vain.

Like the magazine No Depression, the sixteen-song compilation For Anyone That's Listening: A Tribute to Uncle Tupelo, got its start on an Internet "listserv" largely devoted to the band. Producer Rob Westcott decided that the first attempt at a UT tribute -- a lo-fi, Internet-swapped CD-R compilation called Don't Come Here Anymore -- needed a properly recorded and released incarnation, so he lined up some obscure artists (Sixty Acres, Jason Wilbur) and some established ones (Peter Holsapple, Dolly Varden) for a new project. Westcott, who lives in Bloomington, Indiana, has been an avid UT fan for a long time. "They came through in the fall of '90 or so," he says. "It was a Monday night, there were only twenty or so of us there, but I was really affected. I saw all of the shows after that and started taping them."

As a producer, Westcott acted more as facilitator than director, leaving song selection and arrangement up to the bands. "The fact that it was a low-budget-slash-no-budget release [meant] we couldn't put restrictions on the bands. The only thing I wanted to be sure of was that there was a reasonable representation of all the original albums. When the songs started coming in, I was surprised that there weren't more rock arrangements. I don't think it's any better or worse for that. But it was surprising. I mostly remember, from seeing Uncle Tupelo, the rock stuff."

With the exception of Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel's "Graveyard Shift" -- which somehow uncovers the angry love song buried within the original's small-town dread -- and Jim Roll's biting, stutter-step reading of "Life Worth Living," the collection doesn't rock, and when the bands take a stab at a bit of Uncle Tupelo's best rootsy abandon, as with the Shiners' by-the-numbers-including-decimal-points version of "We've Been Had," they mostly sound nostalgic, even derivative.

In his liner notes, former RFT staffer Richard Byrne points out that Uncle Tupelo had a terrific way with covers -- their version of "Effigy" belongs on a short list of astonishing rock revisions -- but that hardly justifies this tribute's inclusion of "Coalminers" and "Give Back the Key to My Heart," neither of which is an Uncle Tupelo songs and neither of which makes sense -- or at least no more sense than trying to acknowledge the Beatles by covering "Roll Over Beethoven." You could call such efforts meta-covers, but that would just be covering your tracks.

For as this tribute argues, Uncle Tupelo's most significant legacy lies in Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy's songwriting. "Hearing other people do these songs," Westcott says, "whether as straight covers or in different arrangements, really pointed out that these are really good songs, not just that Uncle Tupelo's performances were good or that Jay Farrar or Jeff Tweedy gave great vocal performances."

The best performances on For Anyone That's Listening often reach beyond (without necessarily transcending) the originals and even overcome some of Tupelo's limitations. "Fatal Wound" always sounded like Jeff Tweedy trying to write a Jay Farrar tune, but the drowsy impressionism of the original becomes fantastic fodder for Mark McKay and the Bad Souls' artsy basement-tape reading, finding mood and dynamics that are more on the order of a Wilco tribute. "Screen Door," the last song on UT's 1990 debut No Depression, was charming but slight, even if it featured one cutting line -- "Down here, we're all equally poor" -- but Tom Roznowski's sly jive version, featuring nothing more than a few piano chords and some hipster finger snaps, makes the song into a set piece for some unwritten musical on the Beats.

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.

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