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10 years later, Uncle Tupelo is still ahead of its time

By Brian Baker, March 2003

History is littered with improbable and unintentional heroes, figures who have loomed large with the luxury of retrospection, but remained woefully unrecognized in their own present tense. Music history is particularly susceptible to this syndrome, trumpeting a voluminous roll call of names that were barely known in their own eras and endlessly lauded by succeeding generations.

Such was the strange fate of Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn in the late '80s when they made their way out of the Belleville, Ill. music scene and headed west to the more metropolitan environs of St. Louis with their country-in-my-rock/rock-in-my-country outfit Uncle Tupelo, which has their four albums reissued in March.

Before the band acrimoniously and all too quickly subdivided into the better known entities of Wilco and Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo unwittingly gave alternative country its name and its standard to bear.

Guitarist/bassist Tweedy and guitarist Farrar, high school friends, became fixtures on the central Illinois music scene when they formed the Primitives in the mid-'80s with drummer Heidorn and Farrar's brother Wade.

The band broke up when Wade joined the Army, but in 1987 the core trio reunited under the Uncle Tupelo banner with the intent of folding country influences into their potent sonic mixture.

By the time of Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut album, "No Depression," the band had been touring regionally for three years and had a wealth of material to bring to the initial sessions, but it was the progression to the second album, 1991's "Still Feel Gone," that surprised them most.

"When we settled into recording 'No Depression,' they were songs that were kicking around for a few years from playing out live," says Heidorn in a telephone interview near St. Louis. "There was a jump from those older songs in our set list to the recording of the second album. We came up with a bunch of new songs in a very short time frame after 'No Depression'. We got a lot of attention from that album, luckily, for touring purposes."

"People started showing up. We got some good articles. I always thought that the sophomore slump was easy to happen because you get a certain hype or buzz, and the second album isn't surprising anybody. I was really proud of the songs on the second album."

Although Uncle Tupelo was inspiring a lot of people at the grassroots level, the industry was barely paying attention. The band had signed with Rockville, a small respected indie label with an effective, but hardly widespread distribution network.

The buzz that Uncle Tupelo was generating was coming primarily from their relentless touring schedule and not the efforts of their label to spread the gospel.

It was during this important growth period for the band that Tweedy, Farrar and Heidorn began to synchronize their efforts considerably. Almost imperceptibly on their part, Uncle Tupelo was becoming more musically adept with each circuit they made through the Midwest. And while they were busy living life on the road, they were busy living life.

"When we first started playing out in the big city of St. Louis from our little Belleville town, we were first experiencing - at least I was - beer and alcohol at 19, 20 years old," says Heidorn with a laugh. "I was really sloppy at playing. What I thought was good was really a good time. Then we started touring and booking bars in a six-hour radius around St. Louis - Champaign/Urbana; Chicago; Ames, Ia.; Columbia, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis. We'd go away for a week or two or three, and then come home, and I remember my ex-wife saying, 'You guys got good!'"

As Uncle Tupelo cut a pervasive swath through their touring territory, the trio began to understand the dynamics of their live shows, and how it related to the country/punk experiment they were concocting. As their playing improved, so did their ability to recognize the flow of their live presentation.

"We just cut out the riff raff. We were like a machine," says Heidorn. "We really kept the focus on the three-and-a-half minute energy level of the song - whether it was a quiet one or a rocker, there was an energy level to be had. We just really focused on presenting the songs as good as we could, whether we were in front of 10 people or 500 people. We were intent on giving the songs as much justice as we could because we weren't much of a stage show. We weren't a band to watch live as far as theatrics. But we were all humming on the same pistons."

By the appearance of the third album, "March 16-20, 1992," Uncle Tupelo had become a band's band, winning over enthusiastic fans within their peer group (including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who produced "March 16-20") and inspiring an online discussion network (which ultimately morphed into the alt.-country publication No Depression, named after the Carter Family cover that titled the first UT album).

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