Saturday, June 21, 2014
Track of the Week: Uncle Tupelo, "Whiskey Bottle"
I've been re-listening to Uncle Tupelo recently, a band whose music reaches me on a very specific level. They hailed from Belleville, Illinois, a town very similar to the Nebraska burg where I grew up. Both are blue collar, industrial towns located in a rural Midwestern setting. It's a very specific living environment where you're surrounded by farmland and far from the big city but you don't really feel part of the country, either. As far as I'm concerned, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were the poet laureates of the blue collar rural Midwest in the late 80s and early 90s, which coincided with my adolescence. It was too bad that I didn't discover Uncle Tupelo until my senior year of high school, right as the band was coming apart.
Of all their songs, "Whiskey Bottle" might sum up best what it feels like to be trapped in an isolated town. It's a feeling I often felt the most this time of the year, in the summer, where I had a lot of time to kill and nothing to do. The weight of the vast Plains sky sagged heavy with boredom, which is why I didn't mind the hours I spent in my summer jobs walking the rows of corn fields with a detasseling crew, since at least they were a break from the feeling of being lost in space. There's a brilliant line in the song that starts the chorus, "A long way from happiness/ in a three hour away town." By "three hour away town" Farrar means a town that's a three hour drive from the nearest big city. (My understanding was that it was a reference to Columbia, Missouri.) Having grown up three miles from Omaha, I can feel these words in my bones. Of course, back then I didn't drink and unlike the narrator of the song wasn't using a whiskey bottle for solace. I mostly listened to music, read long novels too sophisticated for my age, and watched too much MTV.
Musically, "Whiskey Bottle," illustrates Uncle Tupelo's early mission to mix classic country music with The Clash. The song starts with an acoustic guitar, a weeping steel guitar straight out of George Jones, and Jay Farrar's gruff, world-weary voice before the massively distorted electric guitar blasts into the chorus. It's an absolutely thrilling combination of sounds, and one that still gets me, even as I walk from the subway up Broadway to my job amidst the concrete canyons that blot out the sky that was my constant childhood companion. It's a long way from a three hour away town to the maelstrom of Manhattan, and these days this song makes me wonder just how the hell I got there.