the unofficial uncle tupelo archives 

Guthrie Would've Loved Uncle Tupelo

Justin Mitchell

Rocky Mountain News, February 12, 1993

They may call themselves Uncle Tupelo and count R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Michelle Shocked as fans, but back home in Belleview, Ill., Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar are known by some irreverent neighbor kids as "Uncle Toupee" or ''Uncle Tupperware."

Who are these kids listening to?

"I dunno," said Tweedy dryly. "But it's probably from Seattle."

Trendy, Uncle Tupelo is not. What Tweedy and Farrar do is draw from the spirit of some of the best American traditional music and put their own righteous, soulful stamp on it. In short, Woody Guthrie would've loved these guys. Leadbelly and maybe John Steinbeck, too. More recent musical comparisons / influences range from Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Neil Young to the Meat Puppets and Replacements. (Uncle Tupelo performs tomorrow in Boulder at the Fox Theater.)

Speaking of Dylan, much critical hay was made late last year of Dylan's release of an album of acoustic traditional folk and blues songs. But months earlier, March 16-20, 1992, to be exact, Uncle Tupelo and Buck, went into a studio and did pretty much the same thing to no particular acclaim.

The CD, produced by Buck and on the small independent Rockville label, is split between original and traditional songs. But the spirit of earlier songs - such as the Louvin Brothers' early rip of atomic energy, Atomic Power, or a traditional coal mining organizing song - is indistinguishable from the anguished, white trash wrench of Uncle Tupelo-penned tunes such as Grindstone.

"Country music had this real stigma, especially when we were younger, like it couldn't be taken seriously," said Tweedy, who's 25 but, like his partner, writes and sings like he's at least two decades older. "Eventually we came to realize that it's like any kind of music. The super hyped stuff is crap for the most part, and all the really soulful, true stuff has a lot more potential.

"We just never stopped listening to any kind of music. It wasn't like all of a sudden we decided to listen to the Flying Burrito Brothers or George Jones. Jay and I were like anybody else who wanted to keep finding good records, and maybe we were lucky enough to find a lot of records at an early age."

Tweedy, Farrar and their original drummer, Mike Heidorn began playing in a high school garage band called the Primitives and, by 1987, began writing their own material, about the time they changed the name to Uncle Tupelo.

"We did a lot of '60s covers like the Stones, the Chocolate Watchband," said Tweedy. "I can't remember the exact turning point when we stopped the Primitives and started writing our own songs - or at least trying to. But that's what came out."

They've released two albums, No Depression and Still Feel Gone, prior to last year's March 16-20, 1992. While acclaim and the possibility of a major record deal are growing, Tweedy and Farrar have had trouble keeping drummers. Heidorn left last year. He was replaced by Bill Belzer, who opted out last week.

"We had a little trouble," said Tweedy. "Let's just say it didn't work out. These will be the first shows with our new drummer, Ken Coomer. He's from Nashville and was in a band called Clock Hammer and just got off tour with Jason Ringenberg (of Scorchers fame). We rehearsed four or five times, and the first night it was kind of loose; he screwed up some intros. We were expecting the same thing the second night, but he learned all the songs overnight. But at this point we're a little reserved about making someone a member of the band right away." INFOBOX

Uncle Tupelo, Freedy Johnston and Steak perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Fox Theater, on the Hill, in Boulder. Information: 447-0095.

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