the unofficial uncle tupelo archives
The Mothers Tupelo: How to Raise a Rock Band (without really trying)
By Jim Dissett
Belleville News-Democrat, May 10, 1992
Somewhere in a corner - a very large corner - of Jo Tweedy's Belleville home, sit the Uncle Tupelo archives. Packed away inside several computer paper boxes lie the newspaper clippings, magazine articles and assorted photographs that make up the history of her son's struggling band.
"I think it's memorabilia for Jeff," said Jo, 56, who son constitutes one-third of the critically-acclaimed trio. "I thought this was a phase he was going through and that he would get pleasure looking back on it - when he grew up."
Well, Jeff is 24 now, and Mrs. Tweedy is still collecting. The archives' latest installments might include the rave reviews the band received for its second album, "Still Feel Gone," in national publications like Rolling Stone and People.
"Mrs. Tweedy is very up on the band," said Darlene Farrar, 57, mother of guitarist/songwriter Jay Farrar. "She'll rush out and buy a copy of this and a copy of that."
Then she'll happily fill in the details for anyone who cares to ask. So when Darlene or drummer Mike Heidorn's mom, Eileen, have questions, they run to Jo Tweedy.
"If one of the other mothers wants to know where they are," admitted Jo, "they usually call me."
Sometimes, the answer's not so easy. On the road for much of the past two years, Uncle Tupelo - in addition to recording a yet-to-be released third album - has been quite busy garnering praise from some of the country's most influential contemporary music critics.
"Let me show you this," said Jo, pulling out a snapshot of the band with (rock band) R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck.
"Do you know who Peter Buck is?" she asks. "He worked with them on their next album."
And since R.E.M. had a pretty good year in 1991 - selling millions of albums and garnering top music awards - the Mothers Tupelo feel that Uncle Tupelo might be on to something. But they're not holding their breath.
"It's just neat to go into a store and see your son's album," said Eileen Heidorn, 53. "It was neat just to go in and say, 'Do you have any Uncle Tupelo stuff?'
"I was hoping they'd say, 'Why? Do you know them?'"
It was in the auditorium of Millstadt Grade School where a 5-year old Jay Farrar - dressed in a pint-sized suit and tie - made his stage debut.
"He was looking around like he was scared to death," recalled Jim Farrrar, 61, father of Uncle Tupelo's now 24-year-old lead guitarist. "But when he took that harmonica out and played "Dixie," they just couldn't believe it."
The five-minute performance shocked the PTA audience, as well as the musician's watching mother.
"I was amazed because I can't play the harmonica," said Darlene, who along with her husband and the rest of their four children play a variety of musical instruments. "And he played better harmonica at age 5 than he does today. Now he's under the influence of Bob Dylan, I think."
Growing up in the Farrar household meant growing up with music.
"Between Darlene and I, we've managed to play just about every instrument there is - except violin," explained Jim.
Therefore, Darlene made sure her kids received an education in music, even if she couldn't afford costly private lessons.
"It was the '60s then and Channel 9 had a folk guitar course," explained Darlene. "You see, with four kids, you don't pay for music lessons. And membership to Channel 9 was pretty cheap."
Offering 15 cents a day to each child to practice, Darlene and the Farrar kids studied folk and classical guitar via the public television station. Still, the couple never dreamed their son Jay would take up music full-time.
"My generation, the way we thought about music was that it was a good way to get through college or to make a little extra money," said Darlene.
But it certainly was no way to make a living.
Over at the Heidorns, Len and Eileen like to recount the story of how their son Mike acquired his first drum set.
"She was having a garage sale…," recalled Len, 56. "…and a friend of ours brought over a little 3-piece set."
Since the neighbors had no intention of retrieving the set, it was understood that if it didn't sell, Mike would have first dibs. As it turned out, Mike - then a student at Belleville West - did his best to make sure the set didn't sell.
"We had them out on the car port," Eileen remembered. "And he kept taking them out back."
When the garage sale ended, the drums stayed put - but not for long. Soon, Mike was banging them in unison to the records he played in the family's Belleville basement.
And the next thing they knew, the Primitives - the '60s cover band that would eventually form the core of Uncle Tupelo - would take over that basement for months at a time.
"It was neat for us because back then they played '50s and '60s music," remembered Eileen. "Our music."
When the Heidorns wanted peace and quiet, the boys in the band would pack up and move - to whoever's household would take them.
"You never had to wonder where the kids were," Jeff Tweedy's father, Bob, said of those days. "You could hear them."
Loud and clear. When the neighbors weren't complaining, Bob would take over the job.
"Jo would hang blankets all over the upstairs to deaden the sound," he admitted. "And she always made me a good supper when they were going to practice."
Figuring a full stomach might reduce the strength of the decibels, Jo would serve her work-weary husband a delicious dinner. Sometimes the tactic worked. And other times…
"I'd come home and I'd run 'em out of here," Bob said and smiled. "I'd say, 'I can't stand this! Get the hell out!'"
Years later, a remote-controlled portable stereo at his side, Bob fast-forwards to his favorite Uncle Tupelo songs.
"When they made their first album, I thought, 'My God, they're really serious,'" he said of the band's 1990 debut, "No Depression."
"Then I started listening to them."
Now, Bob sings along to his son's voice. And he doesn't complain about the noise anymore.
"That's the third (album) he's listening to now," Jo said, watching her husband sink into a patio chair near the blaring stereo. "It's mostly acoustical."
But, to ask the Tweedys, it's all wonderful.
"I was sorry when he dropped out of college," Bob said of his bass playing, songwriting son."But he said, 'Dad, I wan to play the guitar.'"
Today, the father admits his son was right to follow his dreams. And if he to do it all over again, the 59-year old railroad supervisor says he just might have taken up the guitar himself.
"I was the one who handled all the complaints from the neighbors," he said of those trying days so many years ago. "But Jeff has given us great pleasure with his music."
"And as you can see," Jo added, gesturing toward the stereo, "we still aggravate our neighbors with our music."
That said, Bob smiled and turned up the volume.
On stage at Mississippi Nights recently, Uncle Tupelo whipped a capacity crowd into a frenzy. Sporting recently-chopped short hair - much to the delight of their mothers - Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy took turns leading vocals to the band's crowd favorites.
"I go see them whenever they're within driving distance," Jo Tweedy said earlier. "I've even flown to Arizona to see them once."
She's hoping she talk her son into letting her tag along on a possible upcoming tour to London, England.
"He wants me to take a friend," she said. "So he doesn't have to mother-sit."
An indescribable mix of country, punk, and straight-ahead rock and roll, Uncle Tupelo's sound can best be labeled "alternative rock."
"I was impressed with the crowd the other night," said Len Heidorn, who along with his wife Eileen, attended the recent two-hour show in St. Louis. "I was pleased and proud - really taken back."
After all, it isn't every day you witness a roomful of people leaping atop one another to your son's driving drumbeat. Part dance, part riot, the energy generated by the band's live performance seemed to reverberate from their chaotic fans.
"It's neat to just stand back and look at the crowd," Eileen said. "When you see your kids enjoying themselves like that - you've got to approve of it."
With a new album nearly ready to be released and song on both the recently-released Michelle Shocked album "Arkansas Traveler" and an upcoming collection of Gram Parsons songs, the band seems ready for even greater exposure. But even with the triumphs the band has experienced, their parents sometimes till worry about their boys' future.
"I know that you have to be very lucky (to be successful in the music business)," said Jim Farrar. "What I can't understand about it is to get all that recognition and there's not much money involved."
What with constant touring, album production and manager's costs, the money the band does make tends to be spread a little thin. They're finding it expensive to be rock 'n' rollers.
"When they ere touring with the (rock band) Replacements," Darlene Farrar said, "I was reassured to hear Jay say that when he was 30 years old he didn't want to live like that."
But in the meantime, the beat goes on.
Uncle Tupelo: Do they really hate Belleville?
In magazines across the country, music writers have taken it upon themselves to cast a dark shadow over Uncle Tupelo's hometown.
"The trio's latest album…springs from the apparently bleak environs of Belleville, IL,'" wrote Mark Caro in Pulse! Magazine.
Rolling Stone described the town as "depressing" in its otherwise glowing review of the band's second album. And even bass guitarist Jeff Tweedy got on the bashing bandwagon when he was quoted in Pulse! As saying, "There's good points and band points almost everywhere…although I'll stand by the fact that (Belleville) is a pretty band place."
"I think if you ask any young kid about living in Belleville, they're going to say it's boring," said Jeff's mother, Jo Tweedy. "But I don't think that (the negative image) was intended."
Some writers, the band's parents theorized, may have connected Uncle Tupelo's sometimes down-and-out lyrics about small towns, alcoholism and rural depression to the town where the musicians grew up.
"They write about what they know about, and they know about small towns," said Darlene Farrar, mother of guitarist Jay Farrar. "Some of them are really depressing, down song looking for the flaws in society."
The characters and settings in the songs could be from Anywhere, U.S.A., including Belleville, the parents said. And while the songs are dark, there's usually a glimmer of hope underneath the struggle.
While it's always exciting to see your kid's picture in the pages of a national magazine, it's not always fun to read what is said about them. As when Rolling Stone printed that singer Jay Farrar's voice sounded, "like he's been gargling with Jack Daniels since puberty."
"I didn't like that very much," his mother said strongly. "I think a lot of the reporters who talk to them are these young, male reporters who are very into alcohol themselves."
Unfortunately, the printed work makes a lasting impression.
"They (music writers) paint a picture themselves and I guess we just didn't deny it as much as we should have," the band's drummer, Mike Heidorn, admitted recently.
Still, he added, "We probably won't be getting many Christmas cards from the mayor."
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