Counterbalance: Uncle Tupelo – No Depression

Fear the hearts of men are failing. These are latter days we know. The great depression now is spreading. God's word declared it would be so. I'm going where there's only the 2,839th most acclaimed album of all time. An alt-rock bellwether is this week's Counterbalance.
Uncle Tupelo
No Depression

Klinger: My disdain for the music of the 1990s is well-documented, but in my defense, I feel like I came by it honestly. My post-collegiate years were, for the most part, a time adrift, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Which does tend to conjure up memories of cheap beer hangovers and overdue utility bills. So you’ll have to forgive me when I can’t muster up much nostalgia for that time. Still and all, there were bright spots in that time, and one of them was Uncle Tupelo. The group might be best known as the well-spring from which we received Wilco and Son Volt, but for me they were an entity unto themselves, both with No Depression, the album we’re talking about today, and its follow-up, 1991’s Still Feel Gone.

Like most people caught up in a time adrift, I was in a band. And the first two Uncle Tupelo records were in a near-constant rotation (on one C-90 cassette tape!) as we traveled from gig to gig. So hearing
No Depression again (after quite a while, for some reason) calls to mind those days of clambering along the highway in a van held together by cotter pins and collective optimism. Maybe that’s because No Depression sounds like the work of three guys who were in a very similar situation. It’s an album of dead-end jobs, grubby bars, and bleak landscapes. On the other hand, Uncle Tupelo also helped launch a genre. Whether they were the first alt-country band is more than debatable, but the group in general — and this album in particular — provided a template for combining massive power chords with the modalities of country music. I know we’ve talked about Wilco, but were you familiar with Jeff Tweedy’s roots-rock roots?

Mendelsohn: Not as familiar as I should have been. The problem is, I was never able to connect with Wilco. I like their music, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a phenomenal record, one that I would recommend along with nearly everything in their catalog. But when I say I wasn’t able to connect with Wilco, I mean they never played the type of role in my life that Uncle Tupelo’s debut record played in your life. I was only ever a passing acquaintance with Wilco, and by never connecting with Wilco, I didn’t give myself much of a reason to trace their roots. So while I knew about Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, there wasn’t much reason for exploration.

We all come to music by different means and I think now is the perfect time for me to make space in my life for Uncle Tupelo. Had we met earlier in my life, I’m not sure I would have liked this record as much as I do today. There are two things that strike me almost immediately: the overt country twang and the backing punk sensibility. I like the country twang. A younger me would have been immediately put off by the underlying punk, and I wouldn’t even have known why.

Klinger: Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to explain your general punkaphobia either, but I am glad to hear that you’re enjoying Uncle Tupelo. It’s not too surprising, I guess, given that you’ve become increasingly steeped in music nerdery since we’ve begun this little Counterbalance project. And make no mistake — chief songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were music nerds through and through. It’s true that they also pulled their covers from the Carter Family, as they do on the title track (although the song in this context sounds less like a Dust Bowl biblical jeremiad than a reference to gold old-fashioned Gen-X dysthymia), or Lead Belly (their rambunctious romp through “John Hardy”), but they never claimed to be backwoods rustics — I seem to recall them noting that they first heard these records the way so many other music geeks did, at their local library.

As I’m listening to
No Depression again after a while away, I’m noticing just how adept they were at switching back and forth between country leanings and massive power chords. You especially hear it in the album’s opening one-two punch of “Graveyard Shift” and “That Year,” in which the band can turn on a dime a few times in the same song (props to drummer Mike Heidorn, of course). Maybe it’s that shifting that makes the punk stand out so much from the rootsiness for you? Either way, I’m curious about the specifics that are bringing you into the No Depression fold.

Mendelsohn: I think I just didn’t like punk for punk’s sake. I’ve moved beyond that hang-up, knowing the foundation the early punk purveyors built for other artists to work off of on their way to other destinations. I like the way Uncle Tupelo wrangles such a disparate genre and makes it play nice at the backwoods country hoedown. But that’s not why I like this record.

I’m a Midwesterner, born and bred — the same as you. Uncle Tupelo’s Rust Belt tales of woe are the song of my people. The desperation that permeates this record is in my blood. I’ve never been near as desperate, but I’ve worked graveyard shifts, I’m more familiar with abandoned buildings and factories than I would prefer to be, and I’ve seen the anger in the eyes of my peers who felt trapped and looked for answers in drugs and alcohol, throwing gasoline on the fire of anger or pushing the desperation out with a needle. That’s just part of growing up where I did — sadly, not much has changed. Tweedy and Farrar work those angles like a veteran boxer, pushing the despair up against the ropes, looking for an opening, looking for hope and waiting for the bell. That’s what I enjoy so much about this record, the fine line between hope and despair.

Uncle Tupelo rides that same line as they meld the country roots of the Carter Family and the modern Sturm und Drang of grunge. The juxtaposition between the high-energy, sharply focused “Factory Belt” and the cool, lilting flow of “Whiskey Bottle” is startling at first but becomes so natural as the band effortlessly combines seemingly opposing genres with ease, pulling back when warranted, injecting electricity at the right moment.

Klinger: No Depression also delivers a tremendous catharsis. The country sounds they make here are never especially jaunty or bouncy — they somehow serve to underscore the bleakness of exurbia (whether they’re meaning to or not. I might be putting my prejudices into this, but that’s at least part of my job, right?). As a result, when those chords come crashing in, you feel yourself kicking everything over in your brain. The group had an innate sense of the meaning behind the noises they were making, and they use them to brilliant effect here.

It’s also interesting to hear this album from the perspective of 25 years, and the arc of Farrar and Tweedy’s post-Uncle Tupelo careers. On
No Depression, Farrar’s stentorian voice cuts through everything, and his songwriting comes across as fully formed—and my God, look at these clips, these guys were just kids. Tweedy, on the other hand, still sounds tentative, both in his voice and in more prosaic songs like “Screen Door” (I’m assuming he’s behind the lyrics here — although the song is credited to all three members, I’m citing case law from Lennon v. McCartney). It wouldn’t be long, though, before Tweedy starts to sound like a relative sonic pioneer while Farrar comes across as increasingly hide-bound. And yes, this is a massive oversimplification, especially when you consider that Son Volt’s first album crushes Wilco’s like an empty cardboard box. Nevertheless, this started to become clear to me around the time of Uncle Tupelo’s last album Anodyne, which somehow ranks higher on the Great List than any Uncle Tupelo record, even though that makes virtually no sense whatsoever.

Regardless, it seems that in the world of pop music, it’s always the pioneers who end up as cult heroes while their descendants get to reap the rewards.
No Depression, thanks to a dedicated magazine, almost served as the name of an entire genre. Either way, it’s become shorthand and a minor icon in its own right. So personal reminiscences and so forth aside, No Depression is clearly an important album. Perhaps, like Morphine, the underrated ’90s group we discussed last week, we can hope to see it advance out of the cult bin as the Great List evolves.