UNCLE TUPELO arrived as the final decade of the 20th century kicked off and, for these ears, and based on these experiences, pulled together everything that had come before into a coherent, singular whole that offered a guide to the road ahead.
Eureka, you might even say.
The band was mentioned briefly in a mainstream US music press snippet – Spin, maybe – and although the words in the one or two pars from 1990 have long faded from memory there was obviously something immediate and imperative about the information presented. The landmark No Depression joined the record collection at the first opportunity and rarely left my airwaves. Either then or in fact now.
Here, in a groundbreaking slice of vinyl, was the rambunctious cowpunk of Jason & the Scorchers, the continuity and rebellious individuality of Willie and the outlaws, the glorious, unashamed roots of the neotraditionalists. But here too was the full-amplifier guitar energy of Husker Du, the loud-quiet-loud of the Pixies, the sociological self-awareness and everyman, Guthrie-esque politics of the Minutemen. All delivered with precision musicianship, melodic and structural invention, and an unadulterated belief in what was being created. Sturm und Twang, perhaps.
(A phrase which, as an aside, I thought was really creative and smart, but which according to a quick Google search turns out others have already used... including on a 1995 collection of 'German underground pop'. Sturm und Twang hasn't been deployed in the Uncle Tupelo context, as far as I can tell, but still disappointing. Ah well.)
Countless words have been written about the album, about the impact it had on the shape of the musical landscape of the time, as well as on subsequent generations of musicians. About how it fuelled the establishment of alt-country as a label for a different kind of music developing in the heartlands, on both coasts, and points far flung. About how the term No Depression – originally from 1936 Carter Family song No Depression In Heaven – came, thanks in large part to the publication of the same name, to describe a movement of discovery and re-discovery.
But much of that was well after the fact. At the outset, in that disconnected age, there was simply the debut record by a small band from Belleville outside of St Louis in southern Illinois, and those 13 tracks.
At the most basic level, the running order covered working class woes, life's regrets, destructive drinking, small town constraints and hopelessness, mixed in with updated versions of traditional number John Hardy and that Carter Family title track. And yet, rather than the backward-looking downer-fest that the last sentence might suggest, listening to the record was more of an uplifting, almost celebratory experience.
It seemed to capture the tradition, history, optimism and culture of a past America, seemed to describe some forgotten national character that existed outside of stock tickers, supply-side economics and phony patriotism, that was instead about individuals and individuality but also collective efforts towards a common end.
No Depression invoked porches and screen doors and rocking chairs, those monuments to rural life and easy hospitality. It played out against a background of acoustic guitar, occasional banjo and mandolin. Pedal steel. Lots of chunky electric power chords. It scanned forward and it looked back; it borrowed and it extrapolated.
The music on the record echoed far beyond its reported sales of some 15,000. Across some segments of my generation – which by god makes me sound old – it would morph into a phenomenon known as 'that Anodyne moment', in reference to Uncle Tupelo's final release of October 1993. It described (as I understood it, at least) the realisation that power and impact, significance and outrage, revolution and uproar, could be delivered as effectively with a straightforward truth as it could with a hand grenade. That acoustic could be more powerful than electric, that silence was as important as feedback, that agricultural accents could be more relevant than urban sneers, that old school AM radio vibes still travelled a lot further than those johnny-come-lately FM rivals at either end of the dial.
For this correspondent, the realisation helped to force open a door that others might well label 'growing up'. The path on the far side of that portal might still have been dictated by an appetite for change, but now it was possible to imagine that would be through contribution rather than isolation, by the application of essential energies towards creation and conviction – personal, professional, artistic – rather than dogmatic non-engagement.
It was also a signficant plank in the bridge that would eventually connect family past and individual present, a process of internal reconciliation that provided the belief, and so courage, that was necessary to embrace and defend the folksy, the egalitarian, the Southern. Despite the inevitable ignorance-driven barbs of the self-styled sophisticated and urbane.
Or – to leave all that mumbojumbo to one side – it could just have been that No Depression was one kick-ass, barn-burner of a record.
IN EITHER case, Uncle Tupelo became the soundtrack of change across both the wider musical landscape and for me personally: I once again crossed the Atlantic, found the love of my life, wrote a couple bad (and unpublishable) novels, trained as a journalist.
Pure luck offered the opportunity to catch the band on what would turn out to be its last tour; 75 people in a small venue. Maybe half-full. People simply had no idea what they were missing out on.
My first payment for words on the page – printed media, what an old-fashioned concept! – arrived as Uncle Tupelo disintegrated. I caught Jeff Tweedy's successor project Wilco in Dublin, Ireland, on the Being There tour alongside the woman who was by then my wife, pregnant with child number one. God only knows what impact the live chaos of Misunderstood had on the development of that eventual arrival . . . although perhaps I should have been more concerned with the roadie who took to the stage at the end of the night to deliver a frenetic, screeching rendition of Black Sabbath's Paranoid.
Life continued to accelerate.
Uncle Tupelo helped to inspire an ever-expanding musical catalog as the backdrop to those experiences: the likes of Drive-By Truckers, Knitters, Jayhawks, Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovido, Richard Buckner. Jay Farrar's Son Volt, of course. I travelled back in time to the Anthology of American Folk Music, Flatlanders, Webb Pierce, Doc Watson, Gram Parsons; I filled in gaps as they appeared, widened the net to tangential bands that I've since forgotten, explored record store bins with little to guide me beyond cover art and sleeve notes. It was, after all, still very much the pre-internet era.
What followed was more wandering, more countries, more children, more music, more laughter and love and enjoyment. More work. More words.
I somehow ended up in the Scottish Highlands.
No Depression still on the playlist.
All text © 2021 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.