How it was exactly that country became uncool is a subject for another time — suffice it to say that by the early 1990s, the utter banality of contemporary country music and the grunge era’s distrust of nearly all things rootsy combined to marginalize just about any artist who possessed both a brain and a twang. Into this irony-laden juncture stepped a couple of kids country enough to love the music and punk enough to feel that so many people not liking it was a pretty good reason to play it.
The story of Uncle Tupelo is the story of these two principals, who grew up in Belleville, Illinois, a decaying working-class suburb just east of St. Louis. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar roomed together for years in fraternal squalor. Their first group was a punk cover band called the Primitives; so doctrinaire were they that Tweedy admits he wouldn’t even talk to anyone who didn’t like Black Flag. The Primitives broke up when Farrar’s brother went into the army. The pair opened their minds a bit and began crafting a fairly persuasive brand of country punk — not cowpunk, as too many novelty-tinged bands have envisioned it, but a slower and psychically intense style of punk- informed rural music.
Their first two albums are at once callow and weary, earnest and irresponsible, bashy workouts marked with a tired banjo or a distant mandolin. Each man brought a distinct sensibility to the band. Tweedy has the sweeter instincts, demonstrated in the shambling heck-yeah-we’re- hicks charm of the debut’s “Screen Door” and in the keening chorus of the winsome “Gun” and his scattery tribute song “D. Boon,” both on Still Feel Gone. But Farrar, with his big, indignant voice and pained tone, gives the early records their soul. His trademark move is a dead stop, a sharp intake of breath and a clenched-teeth bash at the nearest guitar; the move — part show, part genuine outrage — captures both his natural flair for drama and an implicit need for catharsis through rock. Tweedy, who wrote for a fanzine as a teen, has a critic’s interest in music: his songs are dotted with musical references, both philosophical and specific. But Farrar is more fanatical; even when he’s not actually singing about music, his delivery makes it clear that little else matters.
March 16-20, 1992, produced by Peter Buck, is a bit more subdued. It’s almost entirely acoustic and marked by Farrar’s ferocious readings of traditional folk tunes on such cheery subjects as moonshining, coal miners, nuclear power and Satan. In between, Tweedy essays his own brand of folk in a pair of gorgeously abstract ballads, “Wait Up” and “Black Eye,” and tosses in a nice approximation of Freewheelin’-era Dylan in the cameo “I Wish My Baby Was Born.” A moving, subtle, funny, sad and enormously enjoyable album. (That same year, Rockville issued a double- vinyl pairing of Still Feel Gone. and March 16- 20, 1992 with new artwork specific to neither.)
Moving to a major label, Uncle Tupelo delivered Anodyne. The argument can be made that this well- produced and sparkling record finds the trio at a powerful and sure-footed peak. The punk is gone, and so is the country: what’s left is something new, from the sweet, mournful violin that opens the record to the wan envoi, “Steal the Crumbs,” that ends it. But Tweedy makes his allegiances plain with “Acuff-Rose,” a tip-o’-the-hat to the venerable Nashville publishing house, and “We’ve Been Had,” a cry of betrayal against big daddy rock’n’roll. Farrar duets with the composer on Doug Sahm’s classic “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and, on the title song, crafts Tupelo’s finest moment: a floating, soaring melody that is somehow at once archaic and immediate. This was the band’s legacy: the reworking of a branch of a historic music in a way that can fill our minds with meaning and resonance today.
Indeed, by this time the pair found themselves, somewhat discomfitingly, hailed as the catalyst of a potent new strain of serious alternative country, sometimes called Americana and sometimes called No Depression (after the Carter Family chestnut that gave Uncle Tupelo’s first album its name). The music ranged from rock bands like the Bottle Rockets (led by former Tupelo guitar tech and guest instrumentalist Brian Henneman) and the Jayhawks (whose Gary Louris guested on Still Feel Gone.) on the one side to neo-folk and country singers like Iris Dement and Jimmie Dale Gilmore on the other.
In mid-’94, the pair dissolved the band and went their separate ways, apparently at the abrupt demand of Farrar, to form Wilco and Son Volt.