the unofficial uncle tupelo archives 

Band History

What follows is not meant to be a "definitive" history of Uncle Tupelo, but rather a primer for people who are new to the band. For the most comprehensive and entertaining description of the Primatives and the early days of UT, see Mike Heidorn's liner notes to the reissue of No Depression. For the best overview of the band's entire history, see the first few chapters in Greg Kot's book Wilco: Learning to Die.

The Uncle Tupelo story began in the early 1980s with a garage rock band in Belleville, Illinois called The Primatives, featuring Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, Mike Heidorn, and Wade Farrar (Jay's brother). This band grew out of an earlier band that the Farrar brothers had called The Plebes. Both The Plebes and the Primatives played mainly '60s garage-rock covers.

THE PRIMATIVES (1985 - 1987)

Jay Farrar -- Guitar, Vocals
Wade Farrar -- Vocals, Harmonica
Mike Heidorn -- Drums
Jeff Tweedy -- Bass, Vocals

In late 1986, the group changed their name to Uncle Tupelo because a British new wave band called the Primitives was slightly popular at the time. Wade Farrar left the band and Jay and Jeff took over the principal singing duties. With the change in name and line up, the trio began playing more original songs composed by Farrar and Tweedy along with a slew of covers. The sound of the band changed as well. As Uncle Tupelo, the group began to combine elements of punk rock and country music, showing the influence of artists as diverse as Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Doug Sahm, Buck Owens, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Husker Du and Black Flag.

UNCLE TUPELO LINEUP #1 (1987 - April 1992)

Jay Farrar -- Guitar, Vocals
Mike Heidorn -- Drums
Jeff Tweedy -- Bass, Vocals

UT started to tour in earnest in 1988, and they developed a small but dedicated following around the Midwest, especially in St. Louis and Columbia, MO. They played quite often at Cicero's Basement Bar, a tiny venue in St. Louis, which became their home base during their early years. The band put out three self-released demo cassettes in the late '80's; Colorblind and Rhymeless (1987), Live and Otherwise (1988), and Not Forever, Just for Now (1989). Sometime in 1989 they met up with manager Tony Margherita, and with his assistance they signed a recording contract with the indie label Rockville Records. They went to Boston to record with Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade at Fort Apache Studios, and their first full length, called No Depression, came out in June of 1990. Though often referred to as a "punk" album, Jay and Jeff are quick to point out that the name came from a Carter Family song they covered on the record and that the record does contain some banjo, fiddle, and pedal steel guitar.

UT started to tour extensively at this point, and word started to spread about them. Rolling Stone did a brief story on them in November of 1990 (they called No Depression a "stunning debut"), and they were voted the best unsigned band at the 1989 New Music Seminar. At some point in late 1990, Brian Henneman started working for the band as a guitar tech and occasional extra musician.

Peter Buck of REM reportedly was interested in working with them on their second record, but the band chose to return to Fort Apache to record with Kolderie/Slade in June of 1991. Their second album Still Feel Gone came out that Fall, and is arguably the best document of the full range of the band, with a mix of punkish rockers, country shuffles, and acoustic ballads.

Uncle Tupelo continued to tour through the end of 1991 and into 1991. In late December of 1991, Coffee Creek, Uncle Tupelo and Brian Henneman's country cover band / alter ego played at Cicero's for the first time. In March of 1992 the band, including Brian Henneman, went to Athens, GA to record their third LP at John Keane's studio, this time with Peter Buck producing. Saying they were tired of loud amplifiers from their non-stop touring, the band decided that these sessions would be all acoustic, and almost everything was recorded live in the studio. The record which came out of these sessions, titled March 16-20, 1992, was split almost evenly between new Farrar/Tweedy originals and covers, many of which were old, traditional folk songs.

Soon after the March sessions, the recently married Heidorn left the band due to family considerations (he didn't want to be away from his family for long stretches). He was replaced in the summer of that year by Bill Belzer, formerly of a Kansas City dance band called Mongol Beach Party. In the fall of 1992, Uncle Tupelo was joined by multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston on fiddle, dobro, and mandolin. Johnston began playing with them on the ill-fated Arkansas Traveller Review tour, on which Uncle Tupelo was the opening band on a bill consisting of headliner Michelle Shocked (who is Johnston's sister), The Band and Taj Mahal. Although the tour fell apart after only a few shows, Johnston continued to play with UT occasionally, eventually becoming a permanent sideman.

UNCLE TUPELO LINEUP #2 (July 1992 - December 1992)

Jay Farrar -- Guitar, Vocals
Jeff Tweedy -- Bass, Vocals
Bill Belzer -- Drums

and occasionally:
Max Johnston -- Fiddle, Dobro, Mandolin (from Sept. 1992 on)
Brian Henneman -- Guitar, Mandolin, t-shirt sales

This band toured quite a bit in late '92, including Uncle Tupelo's first tour of Europe, opening for Bob Mould's band Sugar. Bill Belzer left the band in December 1992, and was replaced by Nashville native Ken Coomer, formerly of Clockhammer (Ken also did a brief stint with Jason and the Scorchers). Coomer's first show with UT was on the Mountain Stage radio show in Charleston, WV on January 23, 1993. Around this time, Brian Henneman formed the Bottle Rockets and quit working with Uncle Tupelo.

This version of the band toured through March 1993, and in May 1993 they went to Austin, TX, to record their major-label debut, Anodyne, with producer Brian Paulson. They brought in John Stirrat, formerly of The Hilltops, to play bass and rhythm guitar during the recording sessions. On that record, and on the subsequent tour, John would alternate bass and rhythm guitar duties with Jeff Tweedy, with John normally playing bass on the new songs Tweedy had written. Anodyne, which was recorded completely live in the studio with no overdubs, came out in October 1993.

UNCLE TUPELO LINEUP #3 (January 1993 - May 1 1994)

Jay Farrar -- Guitar, Vocals
Jeff Tweedy -- Bass, Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
Ken Coomer -- Drums

Max Johnston -- Fiddle, Lap Steel, Dobro, Mandolin, Banjo
John Stirrat -- Guitar, Bass (from June, 1993 on)

UT toured extensively in support of Anodyne, starting in Europe during the summer of '93. Sometime near the end of 1993 Jay Farrar decided to quit the band, and after a grueling "lame duck" tour in the spring of 1994 the band played their last show on May 1, 1994 at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis.

Where are they now?

Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn formed Son Volt, who put out three albums between 1995 and 1999. Jay then put out several albums as a solo artist, before "reforming" Son Volt with an entirely different lineup in 2005. As of Nov 2006, Mike is out of the music business.

Jeff Tweedy, Ken Coomer, John Stirrat, and Max Johnston formed Wilco in 1994. Jeff and John remain in the band. Max left the band in 1996, and has been a member of Austin band The Gourds since 1999. Ken left the band in 2000, and has since played with Swag, among other bands.

Brian Henneman continues to lead the Bottle Rockets. He also leads a country cover band called Diesel Island that plays around St. Louis.

Thanks to Steve Kelley for help with this page.

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