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Uncle Tupelo Offers Varying Takes on Small-town Life

Peter Blackstock

Austin American-Statesman, January 23, 1991

Depending on which of their songs you believe, the three members of Uncle Tupelo are quite content to live forever in their sleepy little hometown of Belleville, Ill. - or else they're dying to get out.

"Down here where we're at, we don't care what happens outside the screen door," they sing on Screen Door, a song from their debut album No Depression. It's a laid-back acoustic tune that celebrates the simple things about life in a small Midwestern town - from the broiling summers to the snowy winters to the notion that "everybody is equally poor" - with an overriding spirit of complacency.

Move on to the song Factory Belt, however, and the same setting receives an entirely different response. "Don't want to go to the grave without a sound," they shout, forcefully declaring their determination to break those small-town ties and vowing "not to ride on the factory belt."

The difference between the two songs, guitarist Jay Farrar explains, is the sound of a band growing up.

"Screen Door was written very early on, and Factory Belt was written very late on," Farrar said. "So I guess there has been kind of a progression."

A progression, indeed - from a small-time band in a small town just a couple of years ago to an up-and-coming independent label act whose praises recently have been sung in Rolling Stone. A taste of success, it seems, breeds a desire for more.

"We play out every weekend, we're practicing more, we're writing more and whatnot," Farrar said. "We're a lot more focused now than we used to be."

They can be forgiven for not being as focused in the beginning - after all, that was seven years ago, when these 23- and 24-year-old friends were in their early high school years. Back then they were a quartet known as the Primitives, with Farrar's older brother as the lead singer.

Farrar's brother left the group about 3 1/2 years ago, "and at the same time, we had just decided to start doing our own songs," Farrar said. "And they didn't turn out to be as much like '60s garage music; there were more country influences in it. So we changed the name and started playing as just a three-piece."

The heavy country influences, to be sure, are what separate Uncle Tupelo from other groups that play with a similar garage-rock intensity. Though it's highly unlikely Uncle Tupelo will ever be played on C&W radio stations, the pedal steel guitar solo that leads into the song Whiskey Bottle beautifully echoes the early days of country-rock pioneers such as Gram Parsons.

Furthermore, the title song of No Depression is a cover of a 1930s classic by the Carter Family, one of the pioneering bands of modern country music. Its chorus - "I'm going where there's no depression" - serves as a sort of antidote to the rest of the album, offering a doorway from the sense of urgent desperation that's aired in many of the group's own songs.

One of those desperate songs, Train, has become increasingly more vivid and relevant in recent weeks. In the song, written primarily by bassist Jeff Tweedy, the narrator watches a train loaded down with military equipment pass through town and is reminded of how easily a war could hit home. "I'm 21 and I'm scared as hell/I quit school and I'm healthy as a horse/Because of all that I'd be the first one to die in a war," Tweedy sings.

Farrar acknowledges Tweedy wrote the song from a personal perspective. "There is a train line that runs pretty much right through the middle of Belleville, and you do see a lot of the trains hauling tanks and stuff" to a nearby Air Force and Army base, he said. Though the Persian Gulf war so far has not resulted in the draft being activated, Farrar acknowledges that the possibility of its resumption is a real concern to him and to his bandmates. "Yeah, especially now," he said. "We're starting to dig up old interviews with bands from the '60s and stuff, and see how they handled the situation."

Uncle Tupelo
Opening acts: Big Car, the Clowns
When: 10:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Liberty Lunch
Admission: $5

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