There’s no way we could make our first trip through the alphabet without a tip of the hat to the band that some folks point to as the start of this thing we call Americana. I’m going to sidestep the industrial-strength spider web of a conversation that inevitably follows any statement to the effect that somebody did or didn’t ‘start’ a movement or a musical style. Feel free to go down that road in the comments section if you’d like.
I can clearly remember the first time that I heard an Uncle Tupelo song to this day – even though it was more than 25 years ago.
Like a lot of middle and high school kids in the States in the early ’90s, the grunge scene was the biggest, brightest star in my musical universe. The great thing about that music was that it ‘felt’ like the punk music I had heard in my old man’s record collection: The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Pogues. The downside was that I had to be very careful about where and when I brought up the Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson that I heard when I was hanging out with my grandparents. To the ‘cool’ kids in my high school, there was nothing more ‘uncool’ than country music.
Trying to outcool the cool kids was a pretty competitive endeavour. And so, when I heard about a new compilation CD called ‘No Alternative’, I rushed out to be the first one in town to get a copy. There they were at Track #15, covering John Fogerty’s ‘Effigy’. When I did a little bit of digging, I found out that the title track on their first album was a cover of a Carter Family tune from way back. Maybe, just maybe, it was gonna be okay.
Of course, by that point in time, Uncle Tupelo was grinding its way through one last tour and would soon be no more.
Uncle Tupelo started becoming a band in the early 1980s when the rockabilly cover band that Jay Farrar had formed with his older brothers needed to find another student for their line-up in order to qualify for a high school battle of the bands. Jay handed his friend Jeff Tweedy a bass guitar and the rest, as they say, is history.
That band, called The Plebes, morphed into The Primitives when Dade Farrar chose to leave the group rather than move in the punk rock direction that Tweedy was pulling them. With Wade Farrar singing, Jay on guitar, Tweedy on bass, and drummer Mike Heidorn, the group searched for a sound while performing sets of cover songs in bars between their hometown of Belleville, IL, and St. Louis.
When Wade left the band to attend college, Tweedy and Farrar began to write original material. They chose the name change after receiving inspiration from a cartoon character a friend had started drawing. The material balanced Farrar’s and Tweedy’s musical influences and soon Uncle Tupelo had a manager, regular bookings, and the opportunity to record some tracks.
The band’s first album ‘No Depression’ was released in June of 1990. Over the next four years, they would record three more albums and tour the United States and Europe with acts like The Band, Michelle Shocked, Taj Mahal, and Sugar. By 1993, the band was signed to major label Sire Records and headlining their own tour in support of ‘Anodyne’ but tensions between Tweedy and Farrar had become too much to manage.
On February 21, 1994, Uncle Tupelo performed “the Long Cut” off ‘Anodyne’ on Late Nite with Conan O’Brien. Watching that video now, with the benefit of hindsight, tells you everything you need to know about the split that would soon give the world Son Volt and Wilco.
1990 – No Depression (Rockville)
1991 – Still Feel Gone (Rockville)
1992 – March 16-20, 1992 (Rockville)
1992 – Still Feel Gone & March 16-20, 1992 (Dutch East India) (Double LP released on vinyl only)
1993 – Anodyne (Sire)
2002 – 89/93: An Anthology (Columbia)
Key Release/s: For my money, No Depression is still as good as it gets. You can hear everything that is about to happen with the band musically – at its rawest.
If you’re starting out from scratch, you really can’t go wrong no matter where you start but the anthology will give you easy access to the whole enchilada.