the unofficial uncle tupelo archives 

Uncle Tupelo Makes Name For Itself As A Band To Watch

Michael Corcoran

Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 1991

Much has happened to Uncle Tupelo since they first appeared at Lounge Ax, opening for Evan Johns, 13 months ago.

They made a demo, were signed to New York's Rockville Records (formerly Giant), went to Boston and made "No Depression" - which received rave reviews and extensive college radio airplay - and were pegged as a band to watch by Rolling Stone. What's more, they watched their concert audiences vault from handfuls to hallfuls.

The threesome from the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill., will return to Lounge Ax (2438 N. Lincoln, 312-525-6620) at 10 p.m. tomorrow, this time as headliner.

Though their success seems to have happened so quickly, Uncle Tupelo was around for more than three years before being noticed much at all. Before that, guitarist Jay Farrar and bassist Jeff Tweedy thrashed around in their garages as - well, Tweedy is reluctant to say the name. "OK, we were called the Primitives," he finally relents. "We were really young."

With an average age of 23, Uncle Tupelo still is young. Though their music is as brash and thunderous as you'd expect of a band that age, their heady lyrics and heavy sentiments belie their post-adolescence. On "Factory Belt," about wasted blue-collar lives, Farrar sings, "Don't want to go to the grave without a sound."

That theme, about trying to make a mark against all odds, is a thread that runs through several Uncle Tupelo songs, including "Life Worth Livin'," "Screen Door" and "Graveyard Shift." Even when the protagonist turns to alcohol over religion on "Whiskey Bottle," these are songs about noble people struggling to make a difference. One listen to "No Depression" lets you know that the album's name, after a Carter Family tune the band faithfully covers, is tongue-in-cheek.

"This is an awful time to be 23 in America," Tweedy says. "Besides the economy, the new conservative attitudes and the bleak environmental future, now we've gotta worry about going to war soon."

Because of their Midwestern honesty, Uncle Tupelo has sometimes been tagged "heartland rock," a label the band abhors. "We keep telling them that we're `spleenland rock,' but nobody listens," Tweedy says with a laugh.

The group is so intent on stalling lazy comparisons that they nixed a harmonica part on "Whiskey Bottle" because, Farrar says, "it sounded too much like a Springsteen song."

Still, it's hard to ignore the way Uncle Tupelo sounds like Bob Mould fronting Soul Asylum on a speeded-up version of a Gram Parsons song. Though the players are quick to defend their sound as theirs alone, they're also humble enough to define the mechanics of songwriting as "just listening to a lot of everyone else's songs."

Though few people outside of the Mississippi River Valley area have heard of Belleville, it is not a small town, but a model of suburbia. "Yeah, we're in the middle of nowhere," Tweedy says. "But at least we're in the middle end of nowhere."

In many ways, Belleville is even more progressive than the huge metropolis it feeds into. "There weren't any punk clubs in Belleville, but someone used to rent the American Legion hall and bring in shows," Farrar says. "Bands like Black Flag, the Jam and the Ramones played in Belleville before they ever played in St. Louis."

But none of the Uncle Tupelo members attended those shows. "We were too young," Tweedy says.

Now, about the name. Though drummer Mike Heidorn claims to have heard "uncle tupelo" while playing a Lynyrd Skynyrd album backwards, the true story is that the band listed two rows of words and picked Uncle from the left column and Tupelo from the right. Later, a friend drew Uncle Tupelo as a character.

"It was Elvis Presley if he'd never made it," Tweedy says. "He was an old guy with a D.A. haircut wearing fuzzy slippers and sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner. When Carl Perkins came on the TV, Uncle Tupelo would yell that he was better. We like that image."

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