Uncle Tupelo - Biography
By John Schacht
Fired in the harsh economic realities of a dying Midwestern industrial town, Uncle Tupelo never set out to remake American country rock and always scoffed at the notion that they had. Nevertheless, the trio wound up standard bearers for the mid-90s alt-country movement, largely because few before them (and no one since) combined punk’s ferocity with country music’s populist spirit quite as seamlessly and passionately.
Growing up 20 miles southeast of St. Louis in Belleville, IL, guitarist Jay Farrar, bassist Jeff Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn bore first-hand witness to Reaganomics in the shuttered factories and bars jammed with outsourcing casualties in what was once the third largest manufacturing hub in Illinois behind Chicago and Peoria. And as the band began touring the country they were prescient enough to see that the American Dream was in trouble most everywhere else, too. That bleak outlook informed the band’s songs, especially Farrar’s, initially Uncle Tupelo’s most polished songwriter. Just 21 when the band officially formed, Farrar’s smoke-cured voice also had the assurance of someone with a full life-time of hard-eyed observation already behind them – something most alt-country acts strived for but rarely replicated.
Farrar and Tweedy both came from musical families; their first band – a garage-rock outfit called the Plebes -- also featured two of Farrar’s older brothers, Wade and Dade. They changed their name to the Primitives shortly after Heidorn joined (the name was misspelled “Primatives” on business cards), and early clips show them covering some of the ‘60s influences that would partially inform Tupelo, among them Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neil Young. After Heidorn broke a collar-bone and Dade Farrar could no longer commit enough time to the project, the band went on hiatus. But Jay Farrar and Tweedy decided to write their own material in the interim, much of which would later morph – along with a new band name, culled from two columns of random words – into Uncle Tupelo’s seminal first record, 1990’s No Depression (Rockville Records), recorded at Fort Apache South in Boston.
Beginning with a classic country blues hammer-on/pull-off guitar pattern and Farrar’s declaration, “Hometown, same-town blues,” opening cut “Graveyard Shift” then executes a quick time-signature shift into a thunderous, punk-fueled stop-start barrage of guitars and cymbal crashes. As an opening statement of purpose, the song couldn’t have accomplished more. Here was the band’s DNA writ large: Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, John Fogerty, Neil Young, Black Flag and the Minutemen linking hands over the generations with a trio of skinny kids wise enough to get the connections and naïve -- or cocky -- enough to believe they had something to add to the tradition. “Before I Break,” “Factory Belt,” “Outdone” and “Whiskey Bottle” – still some of Farrar’s finest songs – reprised the opener’s formula with key twists of banjo, pedal steel or fiddle, while chronicling the heartland’s demise in songs soaked in despair, fatalism and rivers of alcohol.
Equally notable were the two covers, both sung by Farrar – Hubie Ledbetter’s “John Hardy,” done at the band’s typical double-time tempo, and the Carter Family’s “No Depression.” Though a fairly straightforward reinterpretation, the latter was iconic enough to inspire the alt-country dedicated magazine of the same name. Tweedy’s songs, on the other hand, show him still in gestation phase; while his backup harmonies on Farrar’s choruses are wonderful additions, “Train,” “Screen Door,” and “Flatness” sound more like the fare produced by the young alt-country wannabes that followed in Uncle Tupelo’s wake, mere boys confusing hangovers for hard-living. The rollicking “That Year” is Tweedy’s best moment on the record, and was wisely chosen over his others as the second cut.
(The 2003 Rhino reissue featured six bonus tracks, including the previously unreleased 1988 demo for “No Depression,” a live acoustic take on “Whiskey Bottle,” an intriguing psychedelic garage nugget called “Blues Die Hard,” the studio version of the live staple, “Won’t Forget,” and covers of Gram Parsons’ “Sin City” and the Vertebrats garage rock anthem “Left In the Dark.”)
If Tweedy was overshadowed on No Depression, the follow-up, 1991’s Still Feel Gone (Rockville Records), shows him emerging into his own while the band turned into a finely tuned machine. Recorded at Long View Farm in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, and with Dinosaur Jr. producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade pushing the levels into the red again, the record is probably the most overlooked in the band’s brief four-disc catalog. But there are vocal advocates convinced it is their finest hour. That argument gets a huge boost from the opening cut, Tweedy’s “Gun,” which takes the band’s ferocious punk riffs and twangy choruses into more personal and emotional territory, providing balance with Farrar’s social commentary. Together with “Nothing,” “Cold Shoulder,” and the Minutemen-homage “D. Boon,” Tweedy sounds like a new man, confident and assured, at least as a songwriter and singer; the album’s closer, “If That’s Alright,” even hints at the future experimental directions he would later take with Wilco.
But Farrar didn’t recede into the background; his two acoustic folk cuts, “Still Be Around” and “True to Life,” could have been culled from Harry Smith’s Anthology, such is the power of their aphoristic verses. And the mid-album, one-two punch of “Punch Drunk” and “Postcard” stands at the acme of the Uncle Tupelo punk and country/social commentary template. The former rushes headlong past images of “slash and burn cities” and signs “pointed nowhere,” musically capturing Farrar’s contention that “no one gets off here, no way to slow down.” “Postcard” stretches out the punk-fired tension via a series of pedal steel breaks, myriad tempo changes, and a classic Young-meets-Thurston Moore guitar solo, Farrar simply stating that “this trickle-down theory has left all these pockets empty.” The despair may be palpable, but the playing, singing, song sequencing, and writing are transcendent. And it would be a disservice to over-look Heidorn’s contribution; he is the engine throughout.
(The 2003 Rhino reissue featured five extras, including “Sauget Wind,” a soft-verse/loud-chorus monster about nearby Sauget’s toxic dump that qualifies as one of Farrar’s best, a nuclear cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You,” and for-diehards-only demos of “Watch Me Fall,” “Looking for a Way Out,” and “If That’s Alright.”)
Still Feel Gone was released the same year as Nirvana’s Nevermind, though a universe away from the hype. But in Nirvana’s wake, the record industry was open to trying something new – chiefly punk-influenced music -- in the belief that another golden goose could be anywhere. Though Uncle Tupelo was an on independent label, Rockville Records (who the group later sued for failure to pay royalties) expected to cash in on the trend. Farrar and Tweedy, however, weren’t interested; the crystallization of the band’s punk and country mix on Still Feel Gone suggested they’d gone as far as they could without repeating themselves. They turned, instead, to the country roots their families had inculcated in them.
R.E.M.’s Peter Buck caught the band at an Athens gig on the Still Feel Gone tour, and was especially impressed with their version of the Louvin Brothers’ “The Great Atomic Power.” He offered the band free studio access and his services as producer, as well as free room and board. Over the course of five days, Uncle Tupelo recorded their third record and named it after the sessions, March 16-20, 1992 (1992 Rockville Records). For a band being courted by major labels intrigued by the possibilities of the No Depression/Still Feel Gone sound, an acoustic album of old school folk music should probably have been a career-ender. But with help from long-time Uncle Tupelo friend Brian Henneman, who learned mandolin and bouzouki during the sessions, Farrar and Tweedy created a truly timeless-sounding set of cover songs and original material that sold more than the first two records combined.
The record kicks off with Farrar’s “Grindstone,” another working man’s lament about “filling a quota, just getting along” built on the band’s signature time-shifts. This time, however, the music goes from country shuffle to twangy dirge, eschewing punk anger for folk’s righteous indignation and a WPA-inspired call to arms. The traditional “Coalminers” follows, one of seven covers among the original track-list’s 15 cuts, which, while certainly passable, pales by comparison to Farrar’s own miner’s homage, “Shaky Ground,” powered by rich 12-string and bouzouki accents. Farrar’s take on “Moonshiner” is one of the rare versions of this oft-covered standard that doesn’t make you long for Bob Dylan’s, largely because his voice seems expressly made to sing it; the same can be said for the murder ballad “Lilli Schull,” which the band slows to a droning funeral dirge that tests the limits of Heidorn’s ability to give it any time at all.
Tweedy, too, delivers on his covers. His 98-second take on the traditional “I Wish My Baby Was Born” is one of his finest Uncle Tupelo moments, and together with another folk standard, “Warfare,” presages A.M., Wilco’s twangy 1995 debut. His up-tempo take on “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is another album highlight which benefits from Henneman’s quick-learner bouzouki skills.
But it’s the originals that leave the deepest impression and provide all the fodder needed to make March 16-20, 1992 a classic of its kind. “Wipe the Clock” closes the record on the type of world-weary note that Farrar delivered so convincingly at this point in his career, while his “Criminals” qualifies as the band’s angriest moment, at least lyrically. Farrar references the elder Bush's campaign-speak, warning that the powers-that-be only “want us kinder and gentler at their feet,” but excuses no one by reminding us of our complicity and that “we’re all criminals here.”
Tweedy’s compositions again prove an essential foil and counterweight, offering intimacy to contrast with Farrar’s big picture narratives. He puts a human face on the suffering of the working class in songs like “Fatal Wound” and “Black Eye,” the latter’s narrator eventually taking down all the mirrors in the house once he realizes his black eyes – whether from drunken brawls or a metaphor for life’s cruelty doesn’t really matter – have become a simple fact of life.
The penultimate cut -- an evocative, multi-layered original called “Sandusky” -- turned out to be the only instrumental in the group’s original catalogue, and was one of the few songs on March to feature Heidorn. The drummer had already told the band that he would be leaving to care for his girlfriend’s children from her previous marriage, but agreed to participate when he heard Buck would be involved. But his reduced role and imminent departure signaled an end to the collaborative efforts of Tweedy and Farrar, who had been drifting apart as Tweedy became more confident, and pointed out how crucial Heidorn had been to the band’s dynamic since its early days.
(The 2003 Rhino reissue features five bonus tracks: the instrumental “Take My Word,” a live “Moonshiner” with the “Waltons Theme” hidden at the end of it, and three acoustic demos from the Still Feel Gone sessions: “Grindstone,” “Atomic Power,” and an acoustic take of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”)
Still, after the relative success – especially critically – of March, Sire Records began seriously courting the band, and they signed a two-record, seven-year deal later in 1992 after exercising the buyout clause in their Rockville contract. After a brief stint and European tour with Bill Belzer behind the skins, the band brought in drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, as well as John Stirratt, who took up bass full-time. That allowed Tweedy to play more guitar and inadvertently added to the tension between the two principal songwriters.
Even before the band, now a five-piece, settled into Austin’s Cedar Creek studio to record their swan song, Anodyne (Sire Records), in early 1993, Farrar and Tweedy had already engaged in verbal combat. Different versions why abound, and are best left to the principals; what matters is that, like late-era Beatles records, Anodyne is the work of two willful songwriters headed in different directions which somehow manages to use those tensions to its advantage. One thing they both agreed upon was that Anodyne would be recorded like its predecessor: as live as possible. Completed in two weeks, that gave the record a rough-hewn feel well-suited to the songs’ raw narratives. You can hear it best on their collaboration with Doug Sahm on his “Give Back to the Key to My Heart,” a one-take that sounds as rough as the country-rock legend’s pipes.
But it’s difficult finding a Farrar verse or chorus that doesn’t, especially in retrospect, feel like weary resignation or outright anger at his band-mate. On disc-opener “Slate,” Farrar rhetorically asks over Johnston’s plangent fiddle, “What the hell were we thinking, before the fire burned out?/Can’t find you now, didn’t know you then.” “Chickamauga,” the one Uncle Tupelo cut that appeared regularly in Farrar’s set-lists with his next band, Son Volt, seemed to reference the rift and compare it to the emotional equivalent of the Civil War battle the song was named after. “When jousting is for pleasure and pleasure is way out of hand,” Farrar sings before launching into his best Crazy Horse-inspired guitar solo, “The time is right for getting out while we still can.” Later, on “High Water,” Farrar seems to remove all doubt as to the outcome: “We quote each other only when we're wrong/We tear out the threads and move along/Can't seem to find common ground/I can't see the sand and it's running out.” Practically every one of his songs involves this search for meaning amidst emotional and psychological wreckage, or pleas for an analgesic like the title track.
For his part, Tweedy’s songs suggest blissful ignorance to his band-mate’s state of mind, a contention that his later claim of being “blindsided” by Farrar’s departure would seem to support. Unlike Farrar’s songs, which mostly burrowed deeper into his country roots, Tweedy’s “Long Cut,” “We’ve Been Had” and “No Sense In Lovin’” tend to revel in the band’s outsider status – generally more upbeat, at least tempo-wise, they foreshadow the rock & roll vibe Wilco would later use to full benefit on their sophomore record, 1996’s Being There (Sire Records). “Every star that shines in the back of your mind is just waiting for his cover to be blown,” he sings on “We’ve Been Had” over a twangy, Replacements-like rock beat. If Farrar seems caged by the new dynamic in the band, even Tweedy’s country numbers, like “Acuff-Rose” and “New Madrid,” seem celebratory by comparison – yet it’s in the tension between that the record blossoms.
(The 2003 Rhino reissue included five bonus tracks: Farrar’s lackluster “Stay True,” Tweedy’s gorgeously melancholic “Wherever,” a cover of Waylon Jennings “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” with Joe Ely on lead vocals, and two high-energy live cuts taken from the Long Cut + Five Live promotional disc, “Truck Drivin’ Man” and “Suzie Q.”)
In early 1994, however, Farrar told band manager Tony Margherita that he wanted to quit. In respect to Margherita, who had invested a lot of money in the act, Farrar agreed to one final tour behind Anodyne. During the tour, though, rumors of everything from full-throated blowouts to post-gig punch-ups emerged. One unfortunate clerk at a record store where the band was set to do an in-store took Farrar and Tweedy to breakfast, later claiming the palpable distaste provided one of the most uncomfortable experiences he’d ever had. By the time of the band’s last date, a May 1, 1994 show at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis, it was clear there would be no last-minute reprieve or reconciliation. Well-circulated bootlegs reveal a blistering set by a band at the height of its live powers – and two former friends loathe to even look at each other on stage. Even an appearance by Heidorn drumming during the encore only emphasized the distance between them. With little more fanfare than the final show of any typical tour, Uncle Tupelo was no more.
But time has been good to their legacy, even if it hasn’t been nearly as kind to the alt-country movement in general. The reason why, in the end, is simple; they made four albums that were fresh, honest and raw enough to tap into the same timelessness that personified the music of the punk, country rock and country pioneers they so admired.