Uncle Tupelo

TrackAlbum
Life Worth Livin'Not Forever, Just For Now
I Got DrunkNo Depression
Graveyard ShiftNo Depression
GunStill Feel Gone
Fall Down EasyStill Feel Gone
PostcardStill Feel Gone
Atomic PowerMarch 16-20, 1992
New MadridAnodyne
ChickamaugaAnodyne
We've Been HadAnodyne

Uncle Tupelo photo

Uncle Tupelo (l to r): Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, Mike Heidorn

 

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Contributor: Richard Byrne

Uncle Tupelo was a special band. Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn and Jeff Tweedy (alphabetical order) single-handedly revived a very American blend of country, folk and rock. On the cusp of indie rock success in the heyday of the form (1992), they took a road less traveled to make a largely acoustic record (March 16-20, 1992) that stamped their enterprise with an authenticity that made their next record (Anodyne) one of the most eagerly awaited records of 1993.

Anodyne was worth the wait, but it was also a diary of the tug of war that eventually ripped primary songwriters Tweedy and Farrar (reverse alphabetical order) apart for good (really, there won’t be a reunion) and spawned two equally influential new bands: Wilco and Son Volt.

As someone who was there at (close to) the beginning, writing about the band as they emerged in St. Louis, it’s hard to pick the ten “best” Uncle Tupelo songs. So this Toppermost list is a very personal journey and history of what I see as the break through moments.

 

Life Worth Livin’ (Not Forever, Just For Now)
As I noted in the liner notes of the 2014 Sony Legacy rerelease of No Depression, many of the folks who flocked to Uncle Tupelo shows before the release of that 1990 classic first heard the songs on their amazing cassette demo – Not Forever, Just for Now). The 2014 rerelease finally brought those early demos to the world in remastered form, and they remain astonishing. Many, including me, prefer some of these versions to the official release – and Life Worth Livin’ is one that stays with me still. Farrar’s song captured the America of the late 1980s perfectly for me: the devastation and the hopes for something better, no matter how simple that better might be.

 

I Got Drunk (No Depression)
People recall the boozy intensity of early Uncle Tupelo shows and this is the most succinct song of that era’s odes to alcohol as salve for life’s ills. The lines “Well I took the fifth / And I poured me a shot / And I thought about all the things / I haven’t got” crystallize so many things in 21 words – guilt, recklessness, envy, despair – and it’s all pushed along by a manic insistent buzz.

 

Graveyard Shift (No Depression)
Probably the most important of the early Tupelo songs. It doesn’t just evoke a feeling. Jay Farrar paints an entire landscape of blue collar life in America’s rustbelt that matches anything ever written by that other bard of the American working class Bruce Springsteen for grit and poetry. Yet what pushes it to someplace different and new is the dazzling patchwork of sound Farrar creates: lyrical guitar veers into blast of sheer punk “push and pull” dynamics and then rolls into a bit of classic rock cowbell. It’s a summing up of almost 30 years of American rock to tell an American story.

 

Gun (Still Feel Gone)
Jeff Tweedy wrote some terrific songs for Tupelo’s first record (Screen Door, That Year, Train) but Gun – the lead track on the band’s second record, Still Feel Gone – was the first moment when a Tweedy song punched you right in the face.

True story. I was about to leave St. Louis to teach English in August 1991 for a year in Prague and Uncle Tupelo’s manager Tony Margherita invited me for a drink at an Irish bar in South St. Louis. Before we went in, we sat in the vehicle and I listened for the first time to the then-finished but not yet released Still Feel Gone. I almost cried. From the opening rumble of this song through car speakers, I knew that Uncle Tupelo had fulfilled all the promises and potential they had. There would be no sophomore slump. Rather, it was a stone classic. And, in my view, their best record as a band.

 

Fall Down Easy (Still Feel Gone)
My favorite Uncle Tupelo song. Still staggering to me in its power and its fury – and Farrar’s insistence that we push on past every bit of contemporary experience that insults and demeans human experience. And it is a reminder, in the closing frenzy of drums, how incredibly important Mike Heidorn was to the band. Heidorn just holds everything together.

 

Postcard (Still Feel Gone)
The song that really did sum up the early Tupelo era. Punk dynamics, pedal steel glistening in the seams, those keening and perfect Tweedy harmonies, and the apocalypse caught in a few lines of sheer poetry. But it was a goodbye. The band – especially after Heidorn left in 1992 – never really sounded like this again.

 

Atomic Power (March 16-20, 1992)
Not only was Uncle Tupelo a band that wrote amazing original songs, but their selection and reimagining of the songs they chose to cover (see the title song of No Depression) was astonishing. They found what was genuine in every song they chose to cover. This Louvin Brothers song – from their March 16-20, 1992 sessions – had been a staple from the band’s early days. Here it sums up the collision of American spirituality in conflict with destructive technology. There is a fear of annihilation and an anticipation of salvation in the song that the band captures perfectly.

 

New Madrid (Anodyne)
My favorite Jeff Tweedy song of the Tupelo era. Tweedy marries the bizarre media frenzy over the prediction by a scientific quack named Iben Browning that an earthquake would strike the Midwestern United States in early December 1990 to a rollicking tale of lost love with exquisite touches of local color from the band’s hometown of Belleville, Illinois. It is a masterpiece of American song – a light touch playing with deep emotions. It also shows how much Tweedy and the band itself had grown in four years, pushing into new territory.

 

Chickamauga (Anodyne)
Looking back, it is easy to see Chickamauga as Farrar’s breakup song with Uncle Tupelo. Stylistically, it does (appropriately) hearken back in some ways to the earlier and crunchier sound of the band’s early records. But for me, it is also a prologue to the brilliant individual sound Farrar would find on Son Volt’s classic debut, Trace. There is not a wasted note on the song – and the lyrics move to a new mode of potent metaphorical writing that would propel Farrar’s writing into new vistas.

 

We’ve Been Had (Anodyne)
In the end, only Uncle Tupelo could kill itself. More than any other band of that era (and guided by Tony Margherita – one of the great visionary managers of rock history), Uncle Tupelo stuck to their artistic ambitions, and never went down the path of the easy buck or the latest fad. They are now a treasure of American music with not a blot on their legacy. So perhaps the band earned the right to launch this salvo – written with a cynicism earned by broken illusion by Tweedy – against the rock industry itself. How Tweedy took that cynicism and recast it into a relentless and restless exploration is the story of Wilco itself – and why they remain such an important band.

 

Factory Belt – the unofficial Uncle Tupelo archives

Jay Farrar official website

The official Wilco website

Uncle Tupelo biography (iTunes)

Richard Byrne is a playwright and journalist in Washington DC. He has written liner notes for reissues of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression and Anodyne, as well as R.E.M.’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Here is his website.

TopperPost #497

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 14, 2016

    Richard, thanks for this excellent list on a fine band. For me, ‘March 16..’ is Tupelo’s masterpiece and I would probably have to have their version of ‘Moonshiner’ (second only, in my opinion, to Bob Dylan’s classic one) and ‘Grindstone’ in my top ten. But how to find space for them is the question…

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