20 Years Ago: Ween Do Country Better Than Math With ’12 Golden Country Greats’
Ween were always known for doing the unexpected. But to say that no one expected this four-track duo to hire a gang of Nashville session musicians and record a slick-sounding country album is a bit of an understatement.
Gene and Dean Ween (a.k.a. Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, Jr., respectively) got their start recording strange, lo-fi pop songs and performing live as a duo playing along to backing tracks on tape. As they gained some attention, they slowly improved their production values and their live band.
The two of them eventually signed to Elektra Records and found success with their first two major-label albums, Pure Guava and Chocolate and Cheese. After finding themselves in a comfortable position with Elektra, they decided to try something different.
They just happened to know legendary music producer and artist Ben Vaughn, so when they decided they wanted to make a bona fide country album, he was the man they turned to. Vaughn told them they should record the album in Nashville with real country session players. And he had the connections to make it happen.
Plenty of musicians agreed to play on the record, but a few of them refused. Vaughn described the process in an interview with Taste of Country:
I basically told them, "Some of the material is blue, and I just want to tell you up front." We lost a couple of guys. I wanted Bobby Emmons to play keyboards along with Pig Robbins, and he passed because he’s a deacon in his church and said, “I prefer not to work on blue material.” One of the things we really wanted and we didn’t get was Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass. They were Nashville’s answer to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, three or four trumpets playing in unison, really great pop arrangements. We really like that stuff, but he wouldn’t do it, either.
As the producer, Vaughn would come to bear even more influence on the record than Ween intended, though they happily went along. Vaughn described how he decided not to be nice:
I said to those guys, and we thought this was a funny way to do it, I said, “Let me be the a—hole producer, who tells you that you’re not good enough to play on your own record, and we’re bringing the A-Team in.” And they said, “Oh, we love that. That’s awesome. We always wanted someone to do that to us.” So they were kind of living a dream that’s usually a nightmare for everyone else.
As a result, the two non-brothers only sang on their album, with all of the music, except one guitar solo, being played by hired guns. You can't argue with the results, though. "You Were the Fool" is a fantastic song with strange, borderline-psychedelic lyrics that work so well because of how straight-forward the rest of the song is.
"Fluffy" is another country song that entrances and disturbs at the same time. Like many Ween songs, the lyrics leave you feeling uncomfortable and curious at the same time, and the full, lush country arrangement really sells it.
One of the most "blue" songs on the album, "Piss Up a Rope," is a great example of a country music staple: the breakup song. It also served as the album's only single.
The album isn't without some flaws. "Mr. Richard Smoker" has been heavily criticized as being homophobic, and some critics pointed to plenty of offensive content throughout the disc as a whole.
Ween's sense of humor was often childish, so that's no surprise. Overall, though, the duo's incredible songwriting talent shines through on all 10 tracks of 12 Golden Country Greats.