the unofficial uncle tupelo archives 

Uncle Tupelo Follows Its Own Risky Path

Andy Smith

Austin American-Statesman, November 4, 1993

If you were to list the likely places for the country's more innovative and exciting bands to come from, chances are Belleville, Ill., would not be one of them. The most obvious choices would be a center of the music business such as Los Angeles or New York, or perhaps a smaller city with a vibrant artistic community such as Seattle, Austin or San Francisco, or maybe a smaller college town like Athens, Ga., with a dense population of young rock fans.

Belleville fits none of these descriptions. It is a small blue-collar industrial town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. In a lot of ways it resembles similar places all over the industrial sections of the country. The lifeblood of the local economy has been drained by the closing of its factories. Unemployment is high. Opportunities are few. Most young people grow up knowing that they have to get out in order to get ahead. So on the surface it seems strange that a band as compelling and vital as Uncle Tupelo would hail from Belleville.

But great rock 'n' roll was born out of the kind of pent-up fury and desperation found in dying industrial towns and detached, stale suburbia, not out of a desire to create a saleable product. So in this respect, it is not strange at all that a band as passionate as Uncle Tupelo came out of Belleville.

In only three years and four albums, Uncle Tupelo (which plays Liberty Lunch Saturday night) has asserted itself as one of the most honest and innovative of bands. Probably not since Bruce Springsteen in his prime has there been a voice that has so eloquently expressed the emotions of working-class America. On the first two records, No Depression and Still Feel Gone, backed by a full-throttled sonic assault that Rolling Stone once described as a cross between Husker Du and Hank Williams Sr., guitarist Jay Farrar, bassist Jeff Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn played songs that had more in common with old country songs than college rock.

For the third release and the last on the independent Rockville label, Farrar and Tweedy, reduced to a duo after Heidorn's departure, dared to record a purely acoustic album produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. March 16-20, 1992 mixed Farrar and Tweedy originals with covers of old folk songs such as the Louvin Brothers' Atomic Power and the traditional gospel song Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down. Few young bands would attempt to release a traditional acoustic record, but Uncle Tupelo took the risk and ultimately produced a brilliant record.

Farrar and Tweedy then hooked up with drummer Ken Coomer and signed with Sire Records, a major label respected for its support and appreciation of its artists. Along with multi-instrumentalist and former Austin resident Max Johnston (Michelle Shocked's younger brother) and guitarist/bassist John Stirratt, Uncle Tupelo recorded its recently released Sire debut, Anodyne, at Cedar Creek Studios in Austin.

After scouting several studios in other cities, the band chose Cedar Creek because of its relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere. "It was great. I mean it had wood paneling and a basketball hoop. We were just really comfortable there, and the record really reflects that," said Coomer.

Recorded live with no overdubs, Anodyne is another step forward in the development of Uncle Tupelo. It is a richer, fuller record than its predecessors. The jagged guitars of the first two records have been replaced by fiddle and lap steel parts, and on the whole Anodyne is not as dark and desperate sounding. "We were trying to groove more on this album. They never really grooved in the past, and I think that Jay and Jeff realized it's easy to sound cluttered playing a mile a minute with five people than it is with a trio. The record really shows that the band has matured," said Coomer.

Even with a record as good as Anodyne, questions remain about the tenuous position of Uncle Tupelo as a band that straddles the fence between country and rock. The music is too stark and haunting for popular country radio, but still too twangy for most rock fans. This band belongs on Austin City Limits more than MTV. To its advantage, Uncle Tupelo retains its integrity and unbending determination to follow its own path.

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