Still brown after all these years: Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats turns 25

If there’s one thing we know about Ween, it’s that they don’t give a single solitary fuck about what people think of them. From their earliest lower-than-lo-fi recordings, Aaron ‘Gene Ween’ Freeman and Mickey ‘Dean Ween’ Melchiondo have evinced a purposeful lack of direction. Their songs act as quick snapshots of various genres and aesthetics, bound together by the Weens’ chaotic and artful imaginations. They are just as ready to indulge in some pure 80’s Prince-inspired funk as they are to explore a choice selection of punk-fried riffs that leave permanent imprints on your body.

One of the great joys of listening to a Ween record is that absolutely nothing is off-limits – and while that does get them in trouble from time to time, it also allows them the opportunity to fully inhabit their roles as musically gifted smartasses who aren’t above luxuriating in the inherent humor of a well-crafted poop joke.

Ween have a singular gift at melding adolescent humor with honest sentiment. For all the ludicrous atmospheres in which they so often find themselves, (“Flies on My Dick”, “Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?”), there are moments across all their records when you find your heartstrings getting a vigorous workout. Tracks like “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)” and “Stay Forever” really showcase their ability to intertwine classic pop arrangements with an unexpected lyrical grace. And whether they are trying to impress you (“If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All)” or offend you (“The HIV Song”), they do it with a huge grin and a fistful of some of the most memorable sounds you’ve ever heard. These guys are insanely talented (and maybe just insane) and inescapably brilliant.

The music that Gene and Dean conjures is always moving, skipping between influences and making a glorious mess of their inspirations. Their albums are constantly spilling over with ideas and movements that fit together in odd ways – but they do fit together. And it’s a testament to their innate camaraderie and likeminded musicality that what shouldn’t work winds up soundly completely natural.

Each album feels like a series of photos that you flip through and then flip through again, and then you keep doing that until you’re absolutely sure that you have no clue what you’ve just witnessed. But they grow on you, and soon, the songs begin to encompass entire perspectives and provide a foundation comprised of jokey seriousness, frenzied comfort, and any other emotional juxtapositions you’d care to imagine.

The band revels in absurd contradictions. And nowhere is that more obvious than on their fifth studio album, 12 Golden Country Greats. Released on July 16, 1996 via Elektra Records, the record was immediately met with a giant and vocal “HUH?” from Ween’s wide world of adulators. What were the beloved Boognish brothers doing anywhere near traditional country music? But from the opening pedal steel yawnings and gentle harmonies of “I’m Holding You”, it’s clear that Gene and Dean don’t feel like outsiders here. It certainly helps that legendary session musicians The Jordanaires handle the background vocals on the song. With assistance from longtime friend and producer Ben Vaughn, they set out to capture their own unique perspective on theses rural and ramshackle sounds.

With 25 years to reflect upon its oddness, it has become clear that 12 Country Golden Greats stands as one of the band’s most cohesive statements and begs to picked apart even now: a “brown” take on a well-worn history of music. But what’s the process for imparting their signature attitude and color-based tonality to a genre so entrenched in its own lineages. What is “brown” country anyway? Dean once explained: “Ween is nothing else but brown. It has been our asset – our principle asset – our whole lives. It means that we show up at the festival, and we’re playing with Nine Inch Nails or whoever the fuck it is, and we don’t have any guitars with us, because nobody thought to bring them. So we had to borrow them from the other band. That’s what makes Ween great, is our brownness. It’s a total setback for us, but it’s what makes Ween Ween, is the brownness. It’s fuckin’ brown. It’s so fuckin’ brown all the way through: bad punch-ins, punch-outs on tapes.”

Ween saw 12 Golden Country Greats as a way to make a fucked-up country record that was as reverent as anything they’d ever done. But they didn’t want to come off as trying to shoehorn their own sound into something so familiar – they sought out musicians like Bobby Ogdin (Willie Nelson, George Jones), Hargus “Pig” Robbins (Charlie Rich, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton), Charlie McCoy (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings), Buddy Spicher (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Neil Young), and others whose work over the past five decades resides in some of the greatest country records ever put to tape. In fact, Dean and Gene only handled vocals here, as well as the guitar solos on “I Don’t Wanna Leave You on the Farm” and “Fluffy”. The rest of the music came straight from these iconic artists who they’d managed to wrangle into the studio.

And only adding to the Ween-ness of it all was the fact that there weren’t even 12 songs on the record. After a few instances of trying to come up with a good excuse for the incongruity, the band finally admitted that two songs (“I’ve Got No Darkside” and “So Long Jerry”) were initially planned for the album but were cut after the artwork had been finalized.

The band decamped to Bradley’s Barn in Mt. Juliet, TN, a studio just outside of Nashville, to shape the sounds of the album. Artists like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Ernest Tubb were among the country royalty to have graced the studio with their presence. If Ween wanted authenticity, they had come to the right place.

As I mentioned, the band tapped The Jordanaires for opener “I’m Holding You”, a softly rambling track that feels timeless and respectful but still retains that particular Ween-like personality inherent to all their work. They follow that up with “Japanese Cowboy”, a song that possesses that notable chug-a-chug freight train sound common to Johnny Cash earliest songs. The music is meticulous, so perfectly presented. Not a note is wasted or out of place. By placing themselves in the hands of the people who basically invented the sounds of classic country, gene and Dean were free to focus on sculpting the lyrics, and the occasional guitar solo, to fit the mood of their accomplished conspirators.

“Piss Up a Rope” finds the album firmly in Ween territory, with lines like “so hit the fucking road and piss up a rope” and “I’m sick of your mouth and your two percent milk” sounding oddly comfortable next to the galloping rhythms of ‘50s and ‘60s country music. Other tracks like “I Don’t Wanna Leave You on the Farm” and “You Were the Fool” display a heartfelt adoration for the kind of personal story-songs that inhabited the genre from its inception. Beneath the occasionally loopy lyrics, there are numerous expressions of emotion that can catch you off-guard. Heartstrings are roped and tied with little effort, a testament to their ability to navigate these sounds and to the musicians keeping the songs moving forward.

In keeping with the spirit of their inspirations, each member of the band is introduced on “Powder Blue” and is then given a short time to highlight their respective instruments. This kind of call-out has long been associated with country music, especially during live performances. They had intended to end on a sample of Mohammed Ali’s speech after the Rumble in the Jungle fight. But his estate didn’t give permission, and so the song is cut short on most versions of the record – though a few early copies were pressed and released with the audio sample intact.

The band enters shaky ground on “Mister Richard Smoker”, a track which has come under fire for being perceived as homophobic – though some have countered that the song uses the stereotypes to play against those that would use them in earnest. Regardless, it straddles the line between being offensive and satirical without offering much in the way of guidance as to its true intentions. However, Dean and Gene follow that with “Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain”, an album highlight that repurposes the main riff of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It through December” to create a song both anchored by and freed of its country obligations, though the tempo is considerably faster than Haggard’s original.

The records ends with “Fluffy”, and after all these years, I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s a song about a dog chewing on its leg, and there’s a girlfriend taking the dog for a walk before being admonished by a pig to get back on the porch. The track is played straight with gently plucked acoustic guitar and Gene’s warped voice tangling together in a portrait of surprisingly honest sentiment. It feels elegiac, as if this is more memory than current experience. But I could be reading too much into it. They’ve certainly tricked me into caring before, and I’m sure they’ll do it again.

But why would Ween consider making a country record in the first place? These twangy, rustic landscapes were not their usual avenues of creative exhibition. With so many ingrained stereotypes (and archetypes, for that matter) layered throughout the genre’s history, is there room for some “brown” country music? Over the course of 12 Golden Country Greats, they make a case that any genre can be deconstructed and rebuilt in their Boognish-loving image, even one so far afield from their usual stomping grounds as this. And while I consider The Mollusk to be their masterpiece, this record sits within their discography as an often overlooked gem, albeit a strange and mutated one.

Despite the odd lyrical detour into blue humor and scenes punctuated by bizarre ideology, the band was able to infuse these 10 songs with heart, reverence, and an aching love of its source material. This was the country music album Ween fans didn’t know they needed, and the band delivered a thoughtful look into the tropes and truths of the whole genre. It may not have been Johnny Cash, but it still moved like a train.