The story of Uncle Tupelo is, well, legendary.
In the mid-1980s, high school friends Jay Farrar (guitar), Jeff Tweedy (bass), and Mike Heidorn (drums) formed a country-punk band in Belleville, Illinois, a depressed, blue-collar suburb of 40,000 southeast of St. Louis. Farrar and Tweedy shared songwriting and singing duties in Uncle Tupelo, with Farrar’s material abstract and imagistic while Tweedy’s was more straightforward but no less angry in describing small-town ennui.
Uncle Tupelo released four albums. The first three were on the independent Rockville Records: No Depression (1990) and Still Feel Gone (1991) are the band’s most overtly punk material while March 16-20, 1992 (1992) marked a stylistic shift as Uncle Tupelo recorded a folk album with acoustic treatments of traditional songs in addition to Tweedy and Farrar originals. After that, Heidorn left and was replaced by Ken Coomer (drums), Max Johnston (fiddle and mandolin), and John Stirratt (bass). Uncle Tupelo then signed with Sire/Reprise and released Anodyne (1993), a return to country-rock and what many consider their best work..
With Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo appeared poised to breakthrough when, without warning, Farrar left in May 1994. The band broke up, with Farrar starting Son Volt (after urging Heidorn out of retirement), and Tweedy and the others forming Wilco. When asked what happened, Farrar has answered, “It just kind of ran out of gas” while Tweedy says, “Jay quit”. Perhaps Joe McEwen who originally signed Uncle Tupelo to Sire, put it best in a recent No Depression interview with Peter Blackstock: “Back then, you had two guys who were very strong personalities, and there just wasn’t room in one band for them anymore”.
Although none of Uncle Tupelo’s albums sold more than 50,000 copies, their influence has been substantial. As David Goodman notes in Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory, “[T]hey became the fathers of the No Depression generation of alternative country”.
Being the “Fathers of the No Depression Generation” wasn’t enough, though, to prevent label problems or the first three records going out of print just over a year ago. (Even before that, they were hard to find — just check the prices on eBay.) Now, however, after resolving a lawsuit that gave Tweedy and Farrar rights to their early records, Uncle Tupelo has returned on a major label, Columbia-Legacy, that has just released Uncle Tupelo 88-93/Anthology, a 21-song collection of material culled from those records as well as some less-available material.
Working with Tony Margherita, Uncle Tupelo’s former manager and now Wilco’s, Farrar and Tweedy primarily decided what would go on Anthology.
The label also has plans to remaster and re-release the first three albums with more elaborate packaging and bonus tracks, some possibly live material, which has probably been the source of rumors (false ones) that Uncle Tupelo will be releasing a live album.
That’s the short version.
Any fan of Uncle Tupelo knows that there’s more to it than that, and in a recent interview, founding member Mike Heidorn discussed the new album as well as the band’s evolution.
“In the last year, all this has been going down”, Heidorn says, “and not until I got the finished product in my hand did I realize how fortunate and really unexpected it was to have [the music] back out there on a label as big as Sony and to give these records another fair chance to be heard. I’m excited to say the least. I think it’s a fair representation of the band as far as its years together, and it came out pretty good”.
Columbia/Legacy’s intervention is especially attractive given the band’s problems with Rockville.
“Apparently, it wasn’t much of a label as far as support for us. It basically just got records out to record stores”, Heidorn says. “But what, in turn, was happening was there was no accounting for anything that was going out, so we basically had never been paid a cent in royalties for those records”.
For Heidorn, though, it’s not just about money: “That’s all business crap. I’m happy because Sony remastered it, too, and that made the music sound even brighter coming off the disc”.
In the Beginning
Given that Anthology is a retrospective, it’s fitting to consider it in light of the band’s history, which begins in Belleville, a central force in Uncle Tupelo, both geographically and mythically.
Heidorn says, “Not that I have many other cities to compare [Belleville] to because that’s where I was born and raised, and I still reside around there, but I would say that it’s probably pretty typical of a 40,000-population city. It was mainly a suburb of St. Louis that had a bunch of railroad tracks go through town. There were a few industrial things. There was a Stag Brewery, a couple of hospitals, a couple of high schools — me, Jeff and Jay went to Belleville West — I enjoyed growing up there”.
Growing up found the future members of Uncle Tupelo listening to a range of music.
“My parents, particularly, were into ’50s and ’60s rock and roll”, Heidorn says. “Jay’s parents were from the Ozark-Missouri area, so there were more folky instruments in their house. My recollection of Jeff, his had more of a country tinge to it to. So it was rural, yet we’re only 30 miles from St. Louis. And it seemed to work out real good because bands would come to St. Louis, and we’d drive and go see them”.
It wasn’t long before they moved from listening to playing.
“I started drumming right after I met Jay and Jeff in high school freshman year”, Heidorn says. “My sophomore year, there was drum set at my mom’s garage sale that I ended up begging her for. I said, ‘Let me buy this from the lady that owns it’ — that would have been when I was about 16 years old — and kind of learned the instrument by playing with the band that Jeff, Jay, and me were in”.
He adds, “Jeff and Jay were playing their instruments a little before I was, for sure. And I had to learn real quick, like, learn – we all were learning our instruments together for a few years there”.
What would become Uncle Tupelo began in the early 1980s as “The Primatives”. (More on the spelling later.)
“When we were 16 or so, we were playing. Jay’s older brother Wade — that’s W-A-D-E, ‘Wade’– was playing before I hooked up with them. We were playing ’60s cover songs almost exclusively”, Heidorn remembers, “from the Who to the Standells to the Rolling Stones, and mainly the B-side cover songs, not the popular oldie stations’ hits”, a decision based both on the competition as well as personal taste.
“Enough bands in our high school or around were playing classic rock cover songs and Top 40 cover songs, and we just never really migrated toward that on our radio dial”, he says. “The albums that Jeff, Jay, myself were buying never really did cross over too much with the Top 40 or Top 100 or Top 1000, for that matter. We kind of migrated toward the older section — or at least I did — of the record store. I think there was an energy on those recordings; the energy pounding off those records was just amazing compared to the Supertramps, the songs we heard on the radio. And all these things? No way. We couldn’t even listen to those songs. We were more into the obscure, really raunchy guitar tone”.
When Wade moved on, things changed.
According to Heidorn, “I broke my collarbone at the end of the Primatives, and I couldn’t drum for awhile. After a couple of weeks, I pushed it and started playing again. I noticed it was just me, Jeff, and Jay as opposed to me, Jeff, Jay, and Wade — we were a three-piece all of a sudden”, he says. “Jeff and Jay started writing some songs, and it just kind of happened that the Primatives ended, and we just kept playing in our parents’ basements or garages and, eventually, in my studio apartment. We just evolved, probably like most bands”.
Of course, a new band needs a new name.
“After the Primatives ended, we decided that we needed a new name”, Heidorn says, “because we weren’t the Primatives anymore — there was already a band, out of England I think, that were ‘the Primitives.’ And we were spelling it wrong; I think we were spelling it with an ‘a’ or something in the middle of it as opposed to all ‘i’s”. [A band business card indicates that there was, indeed, an “a” in the spelling.]
Heidorn continues, “We decided to write down a bunch of names on a tablet. I can’t remember very many names that were on there, but there were, really, just one-word names. It filled up two columns, and we decided to pick a word from the left column and a word from the right column. I know ‘uncle’ was on the left; of course, ‘Tupelo’ was on the right. ‘Tupelo’ was put on there because, I think, loosely, Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo”.
“Then we combined that with a drawing a friend of ours had drawn at that time of Elvis Presley if he would have lived”, Heidorn says. “He drew a picture of Elvis in a sofa-chair with bunny slippers on and a couple cans of beer in his hands. It seemed to us like that character was Uncle Tupelo”.
Uncle Tupelo’s first album, No Depression, was a compelling blend of folk and punk named for a Carter Family standard though Heidorn’s not entirely sure why.
“We’re definitely not a religious band”, he remembers of the song. “It’s a beautiful song, and I think [we liked] the Carter Family-Johnny Cash connection. We kept looking for older records, and there was just the poetic beauty in that song. I think it was the timelessness of that song because, at the time, we could see in my hometown things, economically, weren’t always that great. There’s depression everywhere, I guess. So to have this kind of sad song, but there’s some kind of underlying hope in it, just seemed like a good thing to play. A good karma thing, a good thing to cover. Lo and behold, we did cover it — shoot, we named our album after it”.
The album was a merging of two musical favorites: folk and punk music.
“I don’t know that there was an overall concept as to why we were playing the way we were playing”, Heidorn says. “I think we wanted to pull out the best of punk, the Clash. I remember asking Jay, ‘How do they get that guitar to sound like that on ‘Clash City Rockers’? ‘He said’ — and then Heidorn slips into his Farrar imitation — ‘They just turn it up as loud as they can.’ I said, ‘Okay. Let me get that: loud, in-your-face guitar sound'”.
He continues, “But then there was a beauty in instruments, such as a fiddle or a banjo. We couldn’t deny this acoustic guitar would ring and sound so good, but you didn’t hear it on a punk rock song. I think we were just trying to combine all those elements we liked about music. We wanted to play music that afforded all those things we could in a three-and-a-half-minute-long song”.
“And”, Heidorn says, “I think it was just the hodge-podge of short-attention disorder. You’re like, ‘I get bored, and I want to play something hard right in the middle of this song.’ I think it was just a fusion, trying to get some elements from music all-encompassing in one song or in one album”.
After No Depression, things began to pick up.
“It was noticeable when we started getting things in print and reviews”, Heidorn says. “We were touring around [St. Louis] a bit before that first album was recorded. There’s a six-hour radius around St. Louis where you can hit some cities, and we were playing these markets before we had a record. By the time [No Depression] came out, that afforded us the opportunity to send across the nation the finished product”.
He adds, “We just started touring along the East Coast and got, I would say, pretty favorable reviews of shows or, basically, the songs Jeff and Jay were writing. I always felt fortunate that our reviews were favorable though there were, of course, some that slammed us, too, but it just seemed like they were outnumbered. That afforded us to play even more tours and go more places to play”.
“But it didn’t really change anything”, Heidorn says. “We still piled in the band and went to the next show and played and played and played. It just meant that a few more people showed up — not many. There weren’t many people around that I can remember”, Heidorn laughs, “and there wasn’t much money. It just was a little band playing little bars. I ended up having to quit — getting married — but it was a good time while it was”.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Before Heidorn exited, Uncle Tupelo recorded two more albums, Still Feel Gone and March 16-20, 1992.
Still Feel gone was, musically, fairly similar to No Depression. Tough one of Anthology‘s most interesting cuts was recorded during the Still Feel Gone sessions, it never appeared on the album: a cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”.
“I’m not sure that should be on there”, Heidorn laughs, recalling the song’s recording. “We started playing that song live, on-stage, at 12:30 or 1:00 in Cicero’s Basement Bar full of Michelob Dark Beer, just kind of being loose for the moment. For some reason, we went back into the studio and decided to play it in the studio. That’s the only take, I think, there was of that song in the studio. It was laid on Anthology just like we played it”.
He adds, “That was an example of the punk rock of the Stooges and the way we have a country beat behind it. We just liked them both, so we figured we’d combine them on the one song, and that was what the result. I don’t know why we did that, but Jeff sang it very good”, he laughs again.
But Heidorn’s life had taken a turn that forced him to make some decisions.
“There was not much money involved with Uncle Tupelo at the time”, he recalls. “I was getting married later that year, and it was more of a money thing. And then Jeff and Jay were writing some good songs, some strong songs, I felt. This is before the March 16-20 album was recorded. I decided that I should probably tell them that I wouldn’t be able to tour as much and that I’d probably have to get out of the band and let them find a drummer that was fairly focused on that 100%, that could travel all over the world if need be”.
Heidorn continues, “I’d told the guys flat-out, ‘I won’t be able to go on,’ and they asked, ‘Do you want to record this record with Peter Buck?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to. If you want to move on with someone else, by all means do, but I’d be more than happy to do it. I’d be honored.’ So I did the record”.
March 16-20, 1992 was recorded over a 5-day period in Buck’s Athens, Georgia, studio.
As Heidorn remembers, “There wasn’t much rehearsing before we went down to the sessions. It wasn’t like the first two records or singles we’d recorded: We would practice some songs at least a couple times — we’d at least have an idea. But this record was mainly going to be some cover songs that I’d heard on records and some new songs that Jeff and Jay had written. I heard them a little bit before the session but not much because I wasn’t around a whole lot after I’d said I was quitting. I felt like maybe I should give them some space”.
The experience was very positive, despite Heidorn’s decision to leave.
“That was a great studio”, he says, “and Peter Buck was very hospitable, but the most valuable player in that session probably would have been Brian Henneman [of the Bottle Rockets] because we were handing him many guitars and bouzoukis and many weird instruments that I’d never seen before — I don’t think Brian had ever seen and definitely never played. I remember just kind of handing him an instrument before we’d record a song and saying, ‘Try this one on this song’. And he’d sit down and play it”.
Heidorn continues, “That was a pure acoustic record for us. Jeff and Jay didn’t play any electric instruments. Peter Buck did put some feedback on a song with his Rickenbacker; the pedal steel was put on later by John Keane. But there was just beautiful acoustic moments that were happening. Incidentally, it’s my favorite of the Tupelo records — I’m really proud of some of the sounds that came off that record, even though I was only on half of it”.
After all, drums aren’t generally featured on acoustic albums.
“It was odd”, Heidorn says. “We didn’t practice much before we went down there, so I didn’t know what my role would be. The slowest thing I ever did on drums in my life was ‘Lily Schull’, a cover song — just a real lazy drum beat. It was exciting because it wasn’t something I had totally done before. We had played some quiet songs on the first two records, but I always had heavy drumsticks in my hands, usually. These were wire brushes and just kind of a mellow feel. That’s why I only played on half of it because I didn’t know what to do on the other half”, he laughs.
“It was a very subdued sound”, Heidorn says, “and I was really glad that John Keane was behind the controls because he made my drums’ sound fit. Well, I felt they fit with the tones they were getting out of the guitars”.
And so ended Heidorn’s time with Uncle Tupelo. “It turned out that I recorded the album with them, and played one more show, and then I bowed out”, he says. “And they got a good drummer and made a great record after that and toured”.
After Uncle Tupelo
In 1994, after the record and tour, Uncle Tupelo called it quits, though the band members continue to pursue music, and the Uncle Tupelo legend grows.
So what’s it like, being an alt.country legend, responsible for inspiring magazines and bootleg trading, and providing the subject of websites and listservs?
Heidorn says, “I’m astonished that that really goes on, knowing what I know about my playing. I’m really kind of a hack — I kind of learned the instrument on the fly — and I’m astonished at it, that’s what I am. But now that Anthology is out, it’s made me think about how fortunate I am to have it released again in a good format and the fact the label’s called ‘Legacy’– the Byrds and all this stuff are on this label — and I just feel fortunate that people are even paying any mind to us at all”.
“And I’m not a legend at all“, he laughs. “There’s not a legend in the joint. Uncle Tupelo’s just carrying on a fine tradition that was started back, way back yonder with Woody Guthrie or whatever. We’re contributing to a long line of great music — hopefully great music”.
Heidorn’s also enthusiastic about Tweedy’s and Farrar’s post-Uncle Tupelo work: “I’m very proud of those guys. They’re making some good music — and they always amaze me at what they can pull out of their heads. I like both records [Farrar’s Sebastapol and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] a lot, and I’m always anxious to hear what they’ve got going whether I was playing with them or not”.
“When I quit Uncle Tupelo”, Heidorn says, “during that year or two when I was in the married way, whenever I would catch up with those guys, I couldn’t wait until Jeff came into town to play me a tape of songs. I would just listen to them with him, and I’d talk to him about all of this stuff, and I’ve done it with most records that Jeff’s put out since Uncle Tupelo with Wilco”.
He adds, “And with Jay, it’s the same way. Whether it’s a song I played with him or a song he’s played without me around, I’ve always been anxious to hear because I love the tone of his voice. He could be reading the dictionary, and I think it would sound good, just in tone alone. I’m excited for them, and I hope continue to do well”.
What waits for Son Volt remains uncertain.
“The future’s indefinite. I wouldn’t even begin to speculate about what’s going on”, Heidorn says. “I’m a working stiff, and I seem to be in a good place right now, so I’m not even thinking about it. And I don’t even have to anyway because Jay’s knee-deep in this whole solo thing”.
When asked if there’s any chance of an Uncle Tupelo reunion, Heidorn laughs, “Uh . . . no. I think that the guys have a good thing with what they’ve got going, and I would definitely hesitate to say, ‘Yes’, so I would say, ‘No’. Nothing’s ever for sure, but I would have to say, ‘No such thing'”.
If not Uncle Tupelo, what about Coffee Creek, an occasional side-project Uncle Tupelo had with Brian Henneman? After Uncle Tupelo became too big for small local venues, they created Coffee Creek for anonymity (which failed — fans caught on quickly). The band did four shows between 1991-1993, playing only covers of old country songs and never recording in a studio.
“Those were great shows — it was a blast”, Heidorn says with enthusiasm. “I realize now those were some of the best times, just kicking back and kicking out the jams of the old country stuff. The Michelob Dark Beer was flowing, and there was just a lot of laughing. It was just a good time to be playing music. It was good times, and I was damn glad to be a part of it”.
“Now that band”, Heidorn says, “I would like to see play again”.