17 February 2012

#99: Uncle Tupelo - Moonshiner

Uncle Tupelo - Moonshiner
from March 16-20, 1992, 1992

In 2005, I once listed Moonshiner as my favorite song. It's not, obviously, but without the methodological benefit that good data management allows, it was the first song I could think of that stood a chance of being my favorite.

I'm guessing that at least a solid 10% of the songs on my list are drinking songs in one way or another (and I had to cut one of my favorite drunk songs due to the constraints of the project!) but no one does the genre as well as Uncle Tupelo. (Another of theirs will appear later in this list.) I think the general ethos is succinctly described in their song Life Worth Living:

We're all looking for a life worth living
That's why we drink ourselves to sleep.

And another line in I Got Drunk --

You spend half your time just staring into a beer
What you need, you know, you can't find here

-- that hits close to the same meaning; but, for years, I thought the line was "staring into a mirror," and I still like that better.

Moonshiner isn't a Tupelo original but an older folk song covered most notably by Dylan, the Clancy Brothers, and Cat Power. None of these other versions can match the devastating power of Farrar's delivery. While I was never able to really get into Son Volt (significantly preferring Tweedy's Wilco) I rank Farrar exceptionally high on my list of favorite vocalists. The single thing that makes good singers great is not technical ability -- this is what American Idol and its clones miss -- but the relatability of not only the singer to listener but the singer to material. Basically, when Farrar sings

I spent all my money
On whiskey and beer
If whiskey don't kill me
Lord, I don't know what will

he sounds like he means it, like he knows exactly what that implies. Given the stories and Tupelo's other work, it's not hard to believe that Farrar believed he'd drink himself to death.

When you're young, drunk, and depressed, it's not hard to believe that whiskey is the way out, whether or not you want it to be.

The song is simple and self-explanatory in both music and lyrics, with little wasted movement. Three verses comprising an effective biography:

The first, the scene: a moonshiner who has dedicated his life -- not just professionally but mentally -- to drink.

The second, the existence: daily moving among drink and drinkers, wanting better. I've always taken the focus on women as another contradiction, with the drinking being both the reason for loneliness and the reason to not try and make things better.

The third, the end. What I think temperance always misses is the comfort that drink provides, that it makes the world smaller and easier to handle. It's easy when all you want and need is a drink:

Let me eat when I'm hungry
Let me drink when I'm dry
Two dollars when I'm hard up
Religion when I die

The whole world is a bottle
And life is but a dram
When the bottle gets empty
Lord, it sure ain't worth a damn

The best drinking songs are those that make you want to drink more and never drink again. The best drinking songs make you into a Kierkegaardian [Drunk] Knight of Faith, to believe that both are good and both are possible.

(The best drinking songs make you make references like this. I am not drunk enough yet to continue the metaphor.)

Of all the versions I've heard of this song, the Cat Power one is (a distant) second:


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