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Uncle Tupelo

Uncle Tupelo 2003 reissues – 2003 (Columbia/Legacy)

Reviewed by Stuart Munro

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CDs by Uncle Tupelo

This review covers:

  • No Depression
  • Still Feel Gone
  • March 16-20, 1992

In spite of the fantasies of some of their more deluded fans and the wishful thinking of kneejerk anti-Nashville critics, Uncle Tupelo was never a country band in any meaningful sense of the term, much less the rescuers of country music from the soulless clutches of mainstream Nashville or the purveyors of a more "real" or emotionally authentic variant. (Jeff Tweedy once claimed, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that even the band's motivation to play country had its roots in rock attitude: since everyone hated country, he noted, what could be more punk rock than playing it")

It was, first and foremost - and by its members' own admissions - a rock band that incorporated elements of country and folk into its music. It wasn't close to being the first rock band to do so; rock musicians (and country musicians, too) have been trying to meld country and rock long enough for the attempt to have become a recognized hyphenation, and to have gained various other monikers along the way. And the band's members insisted that they were only the latest in a long line of artists stretching from California country-rock and its patron saint, Gram Parsons, and from the roots-rock of Creedence and Neil Young, through the cowpunk and L.A. roots scene of the '80s.

In that light, Uncle Tupelo's attempt to fuse rock and country was nothing groundbreaking. What was groundbreaking was the particular form that that fusion took, one that was influential enough that bands are still consciously (and unconsciously) emulating Uncle Tupelo's sound today, close to 10 years after the band's demise. Uncle Tupelo managed to weld together a type of rock - punk or what punk had developed into, indie rock - with particular elements of country, primarily older, pre-honky-tonk variants such as (most famously) the Carter Family, from whom the band gained the title of its debut, and allied folk musics. The ancient sounds and sentiments of "No Depression" at one end and the eulogistic mission statement "D. Boon" at the other marked the poles between which the music of the band between which the music of the band oscillated.

Songs full of thrash or giddyup rhythms that displayed the band's striking penchant for start-and-stop dynamics and abrupt tempo changes alternated with spare folk; other songs combined both poles by inserting exquisitely mournful country in the midst of surging rock, or underlaying crashing guitar with a banjo's twang. (The band's bipolarity was also found in its songwriting concerns - a desolate populism combined with more inward-looking and less didactic songs, a division that corresponded roughly, but not exactly, to the voices of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy.)

The simultaneous reissue of Uncle Tupelo's entire album output (augmented with the standard bounty of outtakes, rarities, etc.) allows for a survey of the sweep and evolution of those oscillations, beginning with "No Depression's" merging and juxtaposing and merging of punk-derived guitar thrash with country strains, and its echo and refinement on the band's sophomore record. The gone-acoustic record, "March 16-20, 1992," a stripped-down visit to the folk learning grounds documented by Alan Lomax and Mose Asch that also managed to preserve the rock 'n' roll intensity of the band in the absence of electricity, made explicit what songs such as "Still Be Around" and "Watch Me Fall" from the band's previous two releases implied and touched upon.