Personalities | Uncle Tupelo | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival
Belleville is a small town in downstate Illinois, south-east of St. Louis. Like a lot of mid-western towns, it was hit hard in the 1980s by the twin whammy of closing factories and faltering family farms. If punk-rock is the sound of factories and if country music is the sound of farms, it makes sense that a successful blend of the two would come out of a place like Belleville.
The Belleville Trio
It was at Belleville West High School in 1984 that Jay Farrar (vocals, guitar, b. 1966) met Jeff Tweedy (vocals, bass, guitar, b. 1967) and drummer Mike Heidorn and formed a trio called Uncle Tupelo. At first they were a punk band, but eventually they incorporated the flavours of the country songs they had previously ignored when their parents and relatives played them on the radio. Farrar had a grainy, nasal baritone that resembled a brooding, hillbilly lament, and Tweedy had an experimental streak that combined acoustic and electric instruments in ways that altered the sound of each.
Their 1990 debut album No Depression introduced Uncle Tupelo’s surprisingly natural blend of country and punk-rock, a blend the band refined on 1991’s Still Feel Gone. The third disc, March 16–20, 1992, was an all-acoustic affair produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and named after how long it took to record. On 1993’s Anodyne, the group (now featuring Farrar, Tweedy, drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston) graduated to a major-label and enjoyed their biggest commercial and critical success yet. After a triumphant tour, they seemed on the brink of a big breakthrough when Farrar suddenly quit the band in 1994.
Farrar reunited with Heidorn and formed Son Volt, a band that isolated his hypnotically ominous, dirge-like contributions to Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy stayed with Coomer, Stirratt and Johnston and recruited guitarist Jay Bennett to form Wilco, a band that drifted steadily from alt.-country to alternative-rock. Wilco became a media sensation when its album Yankee Foxtrot Hotel was turned down by Warner Bros. Records for not being ‘commercially viable’. When the band bought back the tapes and turned the album into a critical and commercial triumph in 2002, the story became the subject of a movie, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and a book, Wilco: Learning How To Die.
But Wilco made its most important contribution to Americana when it rescued the lost lyrics of the original alt.-country artist, Woody Guthrie. Guthrie had left behind thousands of pages of typed, scribbled and illustrated lines of verse with no music, and his daughter Nora Guthrie invited Wilco and British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg (vocals, guitar, b. 1957) to look through the papers and create new music and arrangements for the most promising items. The musicians found so much terrific material that they recorded not one but two albums: 1998’s Mermaid Avenue and 2000’s Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2. Far...
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