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Members include Ken Coomer (joined group, 1992), drums; Jay Farrar (born on December 26, 1966), vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, songwriting; Mike Heidorn (left group, 1992), drums, cymbals, songwriting: Max Johnston (joined group, 1992), fiddle, lap steel guitar, banjo, dobro; John Stirratt (joined group, 1992), bass; Jeff Tweedy (born on August 25, 1967), bass, vocals, guitar, songwriting.
One of the first bands of the 1990s to blend elements of country and gospel music with rock, Uncle Tupelo has been praised for combining the rawness of traditional American music with the post-punk rock of such 1980s bands as the Replacements, the Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü. Playing both original music and cover songs from a variety of musical styles, Uncle Tupelo is credited with sparking the alternative country genre--also called alt-country and "No Depression music" after the A.P. Carter song recorded by Uncle Tupelo--which avoids studio polish and multilayered overdubs, prizes emotional honesty and minimal production, and incorporates influences from rock 'n' roll, punk, and 1970s album-oriented rock to heavy metal, psychedelia, and 1980s alternative music.
Uncle Tupelo evolved out of a Belleville, Illinois, high school punk band called the Primitives, which featured the three original members of Uncle Tupelo: Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn, and Jeff Tweedy, along with Farrar's brother, Wade. The group split up when Wade enlisted in the Army, but the remaining three reunited in 1987 as Uncle Tupelo. The band honed its country-rock hybrid style in St. Louis, Missouri, across the Mississippi River from Belleville, often playing with another band in the nascent alt-country genre, the Bottle Rockets. Brian Henneman, the Bottle Rocket's guitarist and Uncle Tupelo guitar technician, recalled the early days of Uncle Tupelo and his band for No Depression writer Peter Blackstock: "We always played on the same bills with Uncle Tupelo because we were the only two bands that they could figure out to put together."
Uncle Tupelo played their hybrid of country and punk music in bars and nightclubs across the Midwest and landed a contract with an independent record company, Rockville. They recorded No Depression, which has since been hailed as a groundbreaking album for its recognition of the country roots of rock 'n' roll music. The album's title track--written in the 1930s by A. P. Carter of the seminal country group the Carter Family--particularly infused this idea. The album is held together by the thematic content of small-town frustrations experienced by young men dealing with economic and romantic difficulties. The standout songs, including "Screen Door," "Graveyard Shift," "Whiskey Bottle," and "No Depression," form an album that has been called the genesis of the 1990s alt-country genre and is equal parts Gram Parsons and the Clash. The title track became synonymous with alt-country and inspired the Uncle Tupelo website that evolved into the prominent national alt-country magazine No Depression.
After releasing the non-album single "I Got Drunk," backed with a B-side cover of the prototype country rockers, the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City," the band released its 1991 follow-up album, Still Feel Gone, noted for the increasing quality of Tweedy's and Farrar's compositions and the playing of the band as a whole. Among the tracks that reveal the group's diverse musical influences is "D. Boon," a tribute to the deceased vocalist of the punk band Minutemen. Writing in Rolling Stone, critic Chris Mundy assessed that "Uncle Tupelo has proven itself to be the poetic voice of small-town isolation and smoky-barroom imprisonment," noting that, on Still Feel Gone, "Songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy write with an insightful eye and ragged beauty that bring their images alive without coming off as rote shrieks of youthful disenchantment."
The group's third album and last release with Rockville, March 16-20, 1992--recorded during the time period it was named after--was produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and featured guest guitarist Brian Henneman from the Bottle Rockets. The album employed mostly acoustic instruments on such songs as the Louvin Brothers' classic "Great Atomic Power" and the traditional mountain song "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down."
The band's major label debut on Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire/Reprise, called Anodyne, was recorded in 1993 after the departure of founding member Heidorn, who left to spend more time with his new wife and two children, claiming he couldn't devote enough energy to the demands of burgeoning stardom. His replacement was drummer Ken Coomer; also joining the group were Max Johnston on fiddle, lap steel guitar, banjo, and dobro, and John Stirratt on bass. Guesting were country music legends Lloyd Maines on pedal steel guitar and Doug Sahm, formerly of the 1960s band the Sir Douglas Quintet, who played guitar and sang a cover of his "Give Back the Key to My Heart." Anodyne also featured the song "Acuff-Rose," a Farrar and Tweedy composition honoring the partnership of Nashville songwriters and publishers Roy Acuff and Fred Rose. In their list of 20 essential alt-country albums, the editors of Uncutmagazine declared Anodyne Uncle Tupelo's "crowning glory," containing "a seamless blend of aching country and robust rock 'n' roll." That same year the band contributed a cover version of "Blue Eyes" for the Rhino Records compilation Commemorative: A Tribute to Gram Parsons.
The Tweedy and Farrar partnership had become acrimonious, however, and the band dissolved in May of 1994 after touring to support Anodyne for eight months. Tweedy formed the pop-rock group Wilco with Coomer, Johnston, and Stirratt, while Farrar continued his country and folk explorations with original Uncle Tupelo drummer Heidorn in the group Sun Volt. Legal issues with Rockville put the group's first three albums out of print. In March of 2002, however, Columbia Records' Legacy subsidiary released Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology, which featured selections from the group's four studio albums, as well as previously unreleased recordings, including a cover version of the Stooges' classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The label also announced plans to reissue Uncle Tupelo's first three albums with additional songs in 2003.
by Bruce Walker
Uncle Tupelo's Career
Group formed in Belleville, IL, after playing together in a high school punk band called the Primitives, 1987; recorded three albums for the Rockway label: No Depression, 1990; Still Feel Gone, 1991; and March 16-20, 1992, 1992; recorded final album for Warner Bros. label, Anodyne, 1993; disbanded, 1994.
- Selected discography
- No Depression , Rockville, 1990.
- Still Feel Gone , Rockville, 1991.
- March 16-20, 1992 , Rockville, 1992.
- Anodyne , Warner Bros./Sire/Reprise, 1993.
- Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology (compilation), Columbia/Legacy, 2002.
- Buckley, Jonathon, Orla Duane, Mark Ellingham, and Al Spicer, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
- Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Wolff, Kurt, editor, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 2000.
- No Depression, Fall 1995; September-October 1996.
- Uncut, February 2002.
- "Uncle Tupelo," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll (February 13, 2002).
- "Uncle Tupelo," Sonic Net, http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/ai_bio.jhtml?ai_id'1151 (February 13, 2002).
- "Uncle Tupelo: Biography," RollingStone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com (February 13, 2002).
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