Nashville musicians Jonathan Bright and Tom Littlefield, both veterans of Music City’s 1980s underground rock scene, recently found they had an unusual interest in common – the ukulele. As Tom Littlefield says, “I grew up playing rock’n’roll and country rhythm guitar. And you’re able to make these jazz and augmented type chords very easily that I just couldn’t do on guitar.”]
It’s an appeal that Jonathan Bright echos. “It’s a fun instrument to play because it only takes two or three fingers to play some pretty jazzy and big band kind of chords. So that’s what drew me in.”
But after exploring jazz and pop standards of the 1930s, they shifted forward a few decades to classics of a different breed. “We were just talking about maybe doing a cover song,” Bright says. “And we talked about The Replacements because we both loved that band. It seemed like a weird thing to do.”
Pleased to Meet Me
In the 1980s, no band embodied the bratty-ness of punk rock and a classic sense of pop songwriting better than The Replacements. Starting out as a straightforward punk band in the Minneapolis, Minnesota underground music scene, the band quickly evolved beyond their hardcore beginnings. Their 1984 masterpiece, Let It Be, secured their position as one of the most acclaimed and influential bands of the 1980s, even though their record sales never matched their critical success.]
Like a drunken ballet master, Paul Westerberg’s songs often seemed balanced on a point between utter chaos and transcendental beauty. And although their music changed and softened in its sonic bite over the twelve years they were together, they never lost their bratty punk attitude. The band seemed to be in a race with themselves to become the biggest thing in rock, or self-destruct completely. And their fans, like Jonathan Bright, loved them.
“They were the smartest, funny punk band of them all,” Bright says. “(Paul Westerberg) was writing sensitive kind of stuff, but they had that, you know, ramshackle mess around all these words that made it all right for me, anyway.”
For many of their fans, the bluster and punk was the perfect veneer for the romanticism and insecurity that lay at the heart of The Replacements music. “I think I heard somebody call him a poet for the tongue-tied,” Bright says. “which is great because he turns phrases that, you know, they almost make you mad when you hear them. It’s like Hank Williams for me. It’s so simple, and you’re like, I wish I would have thought of that kind of stuff.”
Bright and Littlefield soon discovered that covering The Replacements’ songs through ukulele strumming and harmony vocals was not as far of a reach as one might think. “We started with ‘I Will Dare,’” Bright says, “and kinda figured out the stummy-strum chords to the first little part. It kind of sounded be-boppy and jazzy and stuff when we started because it’s kind of the same kind of chords, or at least the same kind of feel as those songs.”
As for the bratty punk attitude, they kept that in the way they set limits for themselves. “There was, I remember, a certain point,” Tom Littlefield says. “I think it was on ‘Skyway,’ and we had put down a basic track for it, and I go we should put some Nashville high string on it, you know, some sparkly, and that’s when Jonathan said, ‘No!’ And I was kind of like, ‘Well what?’ He goes, ‘Just ukulele!’ And I remember kind of getting my back up about it. But he was right.”
They maintained their ukulele purity, making only small exceptions for makeshift instruments like a rubber chicken squeak toy, or a drum kit made from a stock pot and a metal mixing bowl. Such mix and match improv led to the heart of the songs in an unexpected way, as demonstrated on the album, Treatment Bound – A Ukulele Tribute to The Replacements.
Four Strings and the Truth
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Tom Littlefield says. “It just sort of snowballed. Before we knew it we had half a record done. And Jonathan and I are both pretty tough on ourselves and anybody else – and we liked it. So we thought there must be some merit to it, cause we hate everything.”
“These songs are so great they deserve to be heard again. It’s sort of easy listening I guess in a sense, that it’s like, you know, I don’t know, punk rock for the senior set. But the idea is that you can at least hear the songs and appreciate the songs.” It’s an appreciation that lingers, even as the musicians grow older and the instruments get smaller.