The U-Liners giddyup

Image: Avril Smith, Joe Uehlein, LarryFerguson, Jessica Lake, Barry Warsaw and Tom Espinola – the U-Liners. Photo by Tacy Judd.

BY BILL BROWN • PHOTOS BY TACY JUDD

The U-Liner’s music is a tool to restore the climate, give low-income workers a fair break and wise people up to tricks and lies.

Organizing is a big part of the band’s mission. But, only if it gets your foot tapping along with the beat.

Toes were tapping and voices sang in chorus at the U-Liners’ live-recording concert in Takoma Park Feb. 27. In between songs, his friends in the audience heckled band founder Joe Uehlein for his lengthy exposition. Uehlein grinned and kept talking.

Airshow Mastering squeezed an avid crowd of around 80 people, including locally well-known progressives and activists such as county councilmember Marc Elrich, Jan Wofford and Nadine Banks into their largest recording studio at the top of Westmoreland Avenue.

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The live-recording concert at Airshow Mastering. Photo by Tacy Judd.

The locally-based band performed more than a dozen songs, most of them songs with a point.

The U-Liners present more than a music legacy – “solid Americana roots/rock” is how Uehlein describes it – they also present a political legacy. That legacy’s foundation is union organizing. It’s Uehlein’s foundation too.

Uehlein comes from a union family. He heard and sang union songs from an early age, growing up near Cleveland in Lorain, OH. He could have ended up working in the local aluminum factory with his father, but his mother urged him to go to college. He’s got a song about that, “Sweet Lorain.”

He was already a musician. He first laid his hands on a guitar at age twelve. He joined a band and, naturally, joined the musicians union at age thirteen. It was the mid-1960s, the Beatle’s era, and his first musical genre was rock and roll.

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Joe Uehlein and Jessica Lake singing.Tom Espinola at right. Photo by Tacy Judd.

In college, however, he delved into the music of radical folk-musician/songsmiths such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, which melded with his roots/rock interest. He returned to his own roots in the process.

He performed, and continues to perform, in support of unions “in hundreds of union halls, rallies and picket lines, demonstrations, conventions.” he said.

So, no surprise that at the Feb. 27 concert the U-Liners performed a song, “Three Chords and the Truth,” written by Ry Cooder, about Pete Seeger, Joe Hill – the exalted Industrial Workers of the World songsmith who was executed on a dubious murder charge in 1915, and Paul Robeson, left-leaning African-American singer and actor who was persecuted for his politics.

Joe Hill, the subject of a U-Liner’s tribute concert last year on the century anniversary of this death, wrote the “lyrics” to another U-Liners’ song – his last will and testament set to music written by Uehlein.

Airshow's Charlie PIlzer. Phot by Bill Brown

Charlie PIlzer, recording engineer at Airshow Mastering, preparing for the U-Liner concert, Feb. 27. Photo by Bill Brown.

“Hands,” uses a poem by union organizer Stewart Acuff about recruiting hesitant workers to a union. Acuff was in the audience.

Unions are not the only subject Uehlein writes and sings about. But, he’s interested in finding common ground between labor and environmental issues.

“You Can’t Giddyup by Saying ‘Whoa!'” is a country-beat swinger about climate-change, big banks and income inequality.

Then again, the U-Liners have songs that are just fun, or about love. Three Weeks to Vegas by U-liners bassist Barry Warsaw is a classic musician’s road song. “I’m Still in Love With You” is a romantic country-style duet.

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Jessica Lake and Avril Smith. Photo by Tacy Judd.

Some songs have subtle purposes.

For example, their Johnny Appleseed number is, on the surface, a fun song revealing John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman’s, true mission – not mentioned in elementary school. Alcohol! Chapman’s trees planted across the frontier were meant to produce apples for making hard liquor “moonshine.”

Uehlein’s intent there is to encourage people to question what they are taught institutionally. “You got to dig deeper … look for the story behind the story. The truth often gets covered up.”

During the concert Uehlein credited Blue Mountain Center, a progressive artist’s retreat center in upstate New York with helping his creative process. Uehlein wrote or worked on a number of songs there, which the band performed at the recording session.

Uehlein is “crowd-funding” his recording project, but (so far) without using popular fundraising websites. Those sites, said Uehlein, take a percentage of donations. They also put donors on their own email lists. Uehlein wants to cut out the middle-man and try a different type of crowd-sourcing. “And you don’t end up on anybody’s mailing list – unless you want to,” he said.

Just like the fundraising sites, The U-Liners offer premiums for certain donation amounts, from an autographed CD ($25) to a house concert ($2500).

Tom Espinola, photo by Bill Brown.

Tom Espinola tunes up. Photo by Bill Brown.

Donations are tax deductible, they go to the Voices for a Sustainable Future non-profit organization. Voices is based in Takoma Park – Uehlein’s home, in fact. He and his family have lived on Pine Avenue in Takoma Park around thirty years, long enough, he says, to feel like a native. He picked Takoma Park because it was home to many people who were either active in progressive politics and the arts, particularly music.

He a founder of the Voices organization that, “seeks to bring together science, art and economics in ways not done before.”

Under Voices is a bundle of projects, including the Labor Network for Sustainability, which integrates unions and climate change issues, and the Cultureworks Collective, using art to agitate. It includes artists of various disciplines, not just music.

The money goes for the recording studio Airshow Studios in Takoma Park. That involves not just the recording session with live audience, but hours of mixing, mastering and production. Then there is promotion, artwork and posters, The budget is $20,000, a relatively low figure for CD production, and they have already raised 13,000 – 15,000, says Uehlein.

He’ll be happy if the project breaks even, he says. The goal is to get the songs – and their messages – to the public.

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Joe Uehlein. Photo by Tacy Judd.

Uehlein’s goal is to make “solid Americana roots-rock music.”.That’s why he formed the U-Liners a dozen years ago. The popular U-Liners have played many of the area’s venues – big and little. They are booked as a roots/rock band, but along with the music they deliver a political message.

Songs do not have to meet political requirements. “We do weave in political message but in the roots-rock style.” The band will  play an upbeat dance tune and follow it with a song about Joe Hill, said Uehlein. He cited the quote attributed to Emma Goldman “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!”

There are no politcal requirements to be a band member, however they do tend to be “progressively-minded,” said Uehlein. It’s a very diverse group of musicians, he said. They play in other bands as well.

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Larry Ferguson, Tom Espinola and Barry Warsaw. Photo by Tacy Judd.

Drummer Larry Ferguson is one of many military musicians who live in the area, said Uehein. A member of the US Army, he’s a full-time military band member. The military provides one of the nation’s best paid, steady musician’s gigs, said Uehlein, attracting many of the best musicians to the area. “They are all out at night playing jazz and blues and country,” said Uehlein.

Lead guitarist Avril Smith, who has a full-time job at the Service Employee’s International Union, plays bluegrass, alt-country, and other styles in a number of groups including Big Chimney and The Great Unknowns.

Mandolin/guitar player Tom Espinola is in Lulu’s Fate which plays traditional Appalachian music, among other things.

Barry Warsaw, bassist, songwriter, computer programmer and father is in Cravin’ Dogs.

Jessica Lake, vocalist, is in DC Mystery Cats and Better Off Dead.

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Larry Ferguson and Barry Warsaw. Photos by Tacy Judd.

Joe himself does solo performances. One of his frequent venues is living-room sized Zed’s Cafe.  March 19, 2016 he will perform at the Labor College for the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Postal Union.

His next project is the Maryland Futures Roundtable, a group of people from all walks of life, said Uehlein “that visualizes how they’d like the state to be in 20 – 30 years,” and how to bring that vision about.

His big concern these days is climate change and sustainability – and how to make it a union issue. His Labor Network of Sustainability/Voices for a Sustainable Future group, with the help of a Town Creek Foundation grant, works to strengthen relationships between organized labor and climate and clean energy advocates in Maryland.


Information about the U-Liners fundraiser is on the Labor Network for Sustainability website.

About the Author

Bill Brown
Bill Brown moved to Takoma Park in 1982. He has been involved in journalism in one way or another since he co-published an underground high-school newspaper in the late 1960s.