It seemed like divine intervention when I received the three re-issued Uncle Tupelo CD’s in the mail a couple of weeks ago. Not at the time, mind you. That day it was just nice to put these discs on and relive the thrill of discovering a new band that positively smoked while blazing a trail that would eventually provide a path for anyone able to manufacture a twang in their voice. No, it wasn’t until that Monday — what we’ve come to refer to as “Black Monday” around the office — when the true value of these discs was revealed.
My company reorganized, sending some people to the street, some to another town. To say it was a shock is an understatement. To deal with it collectively, we drank. Privately, I turned, as I often do, to music. What I found were those Tupelo reissues, cleaned up and expanded versions of the band’s first three albums: No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20, 1992. I put them on for the sheer comfort I knew they would provide, the blanket of the familiar that is always soothing when wrapped ’round your shoulders. But beyond the familiar, I found pointed commentary on my situation, a situation Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy could not possibly have anticipated in anything more than the abstract: When the Man gets you down, we are there.
In “Whiskey Bottle”, the standout track from No Depression, Farrar sings of “One too many faces with dollar sign smiles” and being “a long way from happiness”. That pretty well nailed it. But he offers some redemption, however fleeting, in the song’s most important line: “Not forever, just for now”.
On Still Feel Gone‘s “Postcard”, he’s even more pointed, refining that world-weariness. “Lost sight of ground, never been so down / Nothing here to stand on”, he begins. By song’s end that weariness has progressed to angry resignation: “There’s never been enough reason to believe in anyone”, he says, as if he’d sat next to me and listened while the suits spun their web of semantic obfuscation. “This trickle-down theory has left all these pockets empty”, he continues, giving my plight a universality that is comforting and frightening at the same time.
That’s the key right there. Sure, I wouldn’t listen to this if those words weren’t married to hard-charging guitars that make me want to pogo to this day. But that music, no matter how powerful, how exhilarating, wouldn’t do much beyond cast a nostalgic glow on my youth were it not for those words that still hit home today.
Uncle Tupelo showed promise right out of the gate. I first learned of the band from a record store-working friend who sought to turn me on to the next thing after successfully hooking me on the Jayhawks. Tupelo’s first, No Depression, had just come out, and the band was coming up the river from St. Louis to open a show for the Jayhawks. Hindsight has allowed me to polish the memory of that show, certainly one of the best I’ve seen in terms of sheer firepower by the bands on stage. But it doesn’t need much. It was a great show, one of those moments when music means so much, and the bands deliver.
That first disc — the one that spawned a movement and a magazine — still offers a bracing blast of punk fury, country twang and the lyrical precision and fire that once fueled both genres. Farrar was the clear leader here, his tunes — “Graveyard Shift”, “Factory Belt”, and “Whiskey Bottle” among them — are the clear standouts. By Still Feel Gone, Tweedy began pulling his weight. If anything, he took over as the point man, expressing the band’s rage, his “Gun” and “Nothing” and “D. Boon” showing a fire that Farrar lacked in all but “Postcard”. By March 16-20, the two were clear equals. At the time, that seemed to signal a band with limitless possibility. But the writing was on the wall: These two talents couldn’t co-exist at this level for long.
But on these discs, and the fourth and last, Anodyne, the band evolved to create a body of work that, while limited, is as complete and fulfilling of promise as any. Faced with recognition for an identifiable sound on its first disc, it worked to shed that stop-start cadence on its second. Faced with the chance for a breakthrough after that disc, the trio recorded an acoustic album of creaky folk ballads for its third. Only on the last disc did it do what it should, and in the process created its best, most lasting work.
Few bands with four albums to their name were able to create four must-have discs in that work. Uncle Tupelo did. These re-issues, which bring back into print discs long unavailable, only add to that value. The first two discs, tinny sounding on release, are cleaned up and made more dynamic here. Each disc has bonus tracks that gather songs found by rabid fans on 7″ vinyl records and demos and other tracks that have been available to only the most aggressive collector. Highlights include demos on the first disc from the band’s earliest days and unreleased tracks like “Blues Die Hard”, tracks from singles like “Sauget Wind” and other live tracks and demos. It’s an impressive collection. Only one song is missing: the band’s first single, “I Got Drunk”, which can be found on the Anthology disc released last year. If you were lucky or smart enough to grab these the first time on CD, you’ll be able to live without these re-issues. If you have a bit of extra scratch lying around, however, the extras and sonic upgrades — particularly on the first two discs, make their purchase worthwhile.
Uncle Tupelo is possibly the last band to start in obscurity on a tiny indie label and continue to improve with each subsequent release before breaking through a bit — like the Replacements or Husker Du before them — before flaming out. Both Farrar and Tweedy have made compelling music since to varying degrees. Uncle Tupelo is something else, something separate. Before Farrar became hopelessly obtuse and Tweedy went prog, there was Uncle Tupelo, a band that could speak to you, could truly make you think while your head was bobbing along to the beat. Its music was like missionary work, reaching out, offering a hand out or a leg up. In this lyric-quoting review, perhaps it’s best to let Farrar sum things up. This, from March 16-20‘s “Grindstone” says it all:
If you find yourself standing
at the end of your line,
looking for a piece of something
maybe a peace of mind.
Fed up, lost, and run down
nowhere to hold on.
Tired? take your place at the end, son,
we’ll get to you one by one.