With the release
of their 1990 debut LP No dep-ression, the Belleville, Illinois
trio Uncle Tupelo launched more than simply their own career - by fusing
the simplicity and honesty of country
music with the bracing fury of punk,
they kick-started a revolution which reverberated through-out the American
underground. Thanks to a successful on-line site and subsequent fanzine
which adopted the album's name, the tag "No Depression" became a catch-all
for the like-minded artists who, along with Tupelo, signalled alternative
rock's return to its country roots - at much the same time, ironically
enough, that Nashville was itself embracing the slick gloss associated
with mainstream rock and pop.
Uncle Tupelo was
led by singers/songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, lifelong friends
born in the same Belleville hospital in 1967. During high school,
the pair formed a punk cover band called the Primitives along
with drummer Mike Heidorn and Farrar's older brother Wade. After Wade
enlisted in the Army, the Primitives broke up, but in 1987,
the remaining trio reunited, changed their name to Uncle Tupelo, and
began incorporating elements of country into their music as well as
writing original material. Touring constantly throughout the Midwest,
the band members eventually quit school as their music became more
and more successful, and in 1989 they signed a contract with the small
independent label Rockville.
Taking its name
from the A.P. Carter gospel song covered therein, No Depression
reflected the band's disparate influences, ranging from everyone from
Hank Williams to bluesman
Leadbelly through to the
famed postpunk trio Husker Du.
The most rock-centric of Uncle Tupelo's releases, its songs were meditations
on small-town, small-time life, candid snapshots of days spent working
thankless jobs and nights spent in an alcoholic fog. After the release
of "I Got Drunk," a brilliant single backed with a cover of
the Flying Burrito Brothers'
"Sin City," 1991's Still Feel Gone struck a finer balance between
their rock and country aims. While Farrar's contributions - sung in
his reedy, Neil Young-like
voice - were often informed by a rootsy, scorched-earth mentality,
Tweedy's, with their grittier vocals, delved deeper into the trio's
punk origins, as typified by the song "D. Boon," a tribute
to the late frontman of the legendary Minutemen.
A year later,
Uncle Tupelo released March 16-20, 1992, an acoustic record which
saw the group plunging fully into country and folk. Recorded live
in the studio with producer Peter Buck (of the band R.E.M.),
the album drew heavily on painstakingly authentic covers of standards
like "Moonshiner" and "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down"
along with a fitting rendition of the Louvin Brothers' "The
Great Atomic Power" and Farrar and Tweedy's originals, which maintained
the record's spare, haunting ambience. Shortly after its release,
Mike Heidorn left the group to devote time to his family, and was
replaced by drummer Ken Coomer, formerly of the group Clockhammer.
Multi-instrumentalists Max Johnston and John Stirratt also signed
on as part-time members.
In 1992, Uncle
Tupelo signed to major label Sire/Reprise, and in 1993 issued the
LP Anodyne. Widely regarded as the group's definitive statement,
it was a true country-rock hybrid which accented the power of both
musical forms; the album even featured a cover of the song "Give
Back the Key to My Heart" sung with its writer, roots-rock pioneer
Doug Sahm. After a tour
in support of the album, however, the long-standing relationship between
Farrar and Tweedy dissolved in bitter acrimony, and Uncle Tupelo disbanded;
shortly thereafter, Tweedy recruited Coomer, Johnston and Stirratt
to form the band Wilco, while Farrar
reunited with Heidhorn in Son Volt.