It may have been a bit of a stretch for a whole musical genre to be named after an Uncle Tupelo album. They weren’t quite that revolutionary. But they were a superb band who combined alternative rock with country and folk in arresting and exciting ways.
My first experience of the band was on Michelle Shocked’s album ‘Arkansas Traveller’ and I immediately sought out everything else I could find by them which consisted of their first two albums ‘No Depression’ and ‘Still Feel Gone’. Both albums were predominantly the folk and country inflected alternative rock that had emerged from the college radio circuit of the late eighties. There were bits of REM merged with 10,000 Maniacs and even elements of Hűsker Dű. But there were also hints of something more distinct and original, like the track ‘No Depression’ itself. And Jay Farrar has an amazing voice that seems to suit a world-weary septuagenarian worn out by a lifetime’s hard labour, not a middle class, mid-twenties kid from Illinois. Researching this article I came across the comment that “if God could sing he’d sound like Jay Farrar.”
If we put ‘March 16-20, 1992’ in context it was recorded shortly after Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ topped the American album charts and bands from similar backgrounds to Uncle Tupelo were turning up the grunge elements of their music. In an act of perverse apparent career suicide Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy decided to make an acoustic album that was fairly evenly split between folk standards and their own songs. When the mix works well it is not always clear without checking the liner notes which are which.
Produced by REM guitarist Peter Buck the band stayed in Buck’s house to keep costs down and recorded the album over a session on the titular dates. The album opens with the superb ‘Grindstone’, a Farrar original, before shifting into ‘Coalminers’, a reworking of Sarah Ogan Gunning’s ‘Come All Ye Coal Miners’. Farrar may have received some ribbing as a middle class boy from a comfortable home singing lines like:
“I am a coal miner and I’m sure l wish you well.
Let’s sink this dirty capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell.”
But whoever said you had to suffer to stand up for the dispossessed?
It might be possible to level the same criticism against a band with no obvious religious conviction singing songs like ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’ and the superb ‘Warfare’. One unlikely highlight of the record is the instrumental ‘Sandusky’ which simply emerged from some experimentation in the studio. Tweedy has stated elsewhere that it was one of the songs he was proudest of from his work in Uncle Tupelo.
The album was expanded and re-released in 2003 with a bunch of live recordings and demos that added little to the original album. There is, after all, little that could improve on the perfection of the murder ballad ‘Lilli Schull’ or the band’s glorious version of the traditional ‘Moonshiner’. Buck’s original desire to record the band was based on their version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘Atomic Power’, arising from the genuine fear of nuclear destruction experienced by the Cuban Missile Crisis generation. The political statements in a number of the tracks are codified in Farrar’s ‘Criminals’ which angrily deconstructs a speech by George Bush (the father, not the son.)
Uncle Tupelo may have only survived one more album before the antipathy between Farrar and Tweedy, the two childhood friends, ripped the band apart. Some may say that Tweedy achieved his best output with Wilco and others that Farrar’s work with Son Volt has been his greatest. But for me, however much I have enjoyed their post-Uncle Tupelo work, nothing has ever really surpassed ’16-20 March, 1992’.