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Creativity Is Relative

Uncle Tupelo and their alt-country legacy


Uncle TupeloDaniel Corrigan/Warner Bros. Records

Like most musical pioneers, the members of Uncle Tupelo had no idea they were engaged in anything as momentous as altering rock & roll listening habits. But the alt-country founding fathers' modest four-record catalogue is, in retrospect, the touchstone of a small but significant music revolution.The innovative evidence will be available again April 8 when Sony Legacy reissues the early Uncle Tupelo catalogue -- No Depression, Still Feel Gone and March 16-20, all of which had been out of print -- to go along with the 21-song 89/93: An Anthology released last year. (Rhino reissued the band's major label debut and swan song, Anodyne, in March.)

While grateful, legendary status is a heritage the original members of Uncle Tupelo are not all that comfortable with. From their perspective, the band was merely continuing a tradition started in the 60s, most notably by the Lewis and Clark of country rock, Gram Parsons and the Byrds.

"I'm astonished that people consider us the place where alt-country started," drummer Mike Heidorn said in a phone interview. "I always thought that was misleading because of all the records that we were listening to, including the Byrds records from the 60s, and the bands that we would go drive three hours to see, Jason and the Scorchers and stuff like that."

But if Heidorn and the two principle songwriters, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, didn't invent country-rock, there's no denying they put the punk in "punktry." The genius of the band was in combining two established but seemingly exhausted and incompatible music forms -- country and punk -- into a spirited hybrid that proved that punk outcasts like the Minutemen and Ramones were as much a part of the American musical landscape as country outlaws like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

For their vision alone, the reissues and last year's anthology are warranted. They're handsomely repackaged and packed with bonus material.

From the opening salvo of the first record -- the countrified riff and blazing start/stop power chords of No Depression's "Graveyard Shift" -- it was immediately evident Uncle Tupelo had bottled something unique and highly affecting. The title track eventually inspired the name of a magazine devoted to the new musical movement, and did more than just resurrect a Carter Family classic: For a new generation that believed Garth Brooks was country music, the song exposed them to the genuine article.

The transcendent "Whiskey Bottle" is the record's touchstone, however. The 23-year-old Farrar described the bleak Reaganomics realities of a dying Midwestern industrial town and the personal dissipation attendant -- all in a timeless, melancholic baritone that suggested he might've survived the Great Depression, too.

The group's second record, Still Feel Gone, honed their sound to a razor-sharp edge. Thematically, the travails of an independent band striving to break even were added to the national pessimism and malaise they encountered traveling across the country in a run-down van from gig to gig. The two meshed hand in glove in a sonic tableau of take-no-prisoners punk and gorgeous but wistful country.

The record also saw the emergence of Tweedy as a significant songwriter in his own right. Despite similarly melancholic outlooks, Tweedy's songs were more personal than Farrar's and provided the perfect foil; where the one was focused on the big picture, the other found a world of hurt to match in everyday relationships.

Still Feel Gone was released in 1991, the year "alternative" rock broke, with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins altering the landscape of what was considered mainstream music. Suddenly, Uncle Tupelo's punk-based guitar attack didn't seem quite so unmarketable, suggesting that a lucrative niche with their name on it might be out there.

But the band's next record subverted all notions alternative, commercial, or indie. March 16-20 was an acoustic set of traditional country and folk songs; the punk, the rock, the noise got left behind. As Tweedy explained in the liner notes to the anthology, he and Farrar realized that the murder ballads and protest songs they admired were "scarier than Henry Rollins (of Black Flag) could ever be." Making a gentle, acoustic record turned out to be very punk rock.

More importantly, it was as brilliantly executed as it was conceived. Produced by REM's Peter Buck and recorded in just five days, the album juxtaposed forgotten traditionals culled from forgotten anthologies with originals by Farrar and Tweedy that sounded as though they'd come from the same time-worn collections.

Although his role was greatly diminished compared with the band's first two outings, Heidorn is most proud of his work on March 16-20, his last with the band before he quit to get married.

March 16-20 also garnered the band some much overdue notice, and after a fair amount of soul searching they signed with Reprise for their next record. If their fans were worried that a major label might sand down Uncle Tupelo's essential rough edges, the band made sure that didn't happen by recording the new disc live -- overdubs were off-limits from the get-go.

The result, Anodyne, is seen by most as the band's quintessential record. Tweedy the songwriter had matured into Farrar's equal, though the two employed fundamentally different styles under the same country-rock rubric. From the elegiac "Slate" and apocalyptic "Chickamauga," to the pop sensibilities of "We've Been Had" and the bittersweet "No Sense In Lovin'," the "interplay between Farrar's haunted landscapes and Tweedy's sardonic takes on love and music imbues the album with the kinetic energy of a tug-of-war," journalist Richard Byrne wrote in his liner notes. "This push and pull enlivens Anodyne immeasurably."

It also, unfortunately, presaged the end of the road for the band. It turns out their high school friend Heidorn had functioned as a necessary medium between the talkative Tweedy and the taciturn Farrar. From a creative standpoint, they were now two independent-minded solo artists "sharing a band," as Farrar pointed out. It was an awkward situation that Farrar put an end to by announcing his departure effective after the final date of the Anodyne tour.

Both songwriters have done well for themselves since: Farrar's new band, Son Volt, put out three country rock records including the critically acclaimed Trace, before Farrar went out on his own exploring new sounds; Tweedy took the remaining band members from the Anodyne sessions and formed Wilco, a critical darling. Both Tweedy and Farrar were last heard giving voice to distinctly un-country-like musical ideas which still managed to carry on the Uncle Tupelo tradition of creating appealing populist music without a second thought to MTV, market shares or units sold.

And that's the legacy that Uncle Tupelo -- like all influential bands -- leaves behind: innovative and honest music.

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