Uncle Tupelo was a band like Nirvana, also a trio, still in high school circa 1990. Whether they landed a diploma or not, they are now lauded as a super-group.
Quite like Buffalo Springfield during the Sixties, the Belleville, Illinois country-punk band put a lasting name to modern alternative-country rock that lasted a few years.
A Tupelo record is a rare find since songwriters Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar splintered by 1995, forming Wilco and Son Volt. Columbia and Sony Legacy Records step in this year to refurbish their four record catalog and release “89/93: An Anthology,” which is now on the shelves.
Brash and predating grunge and mid-1990’s pop-rock “Graveyard Shift” is the Americana twanged answer to punk. With a ‘dueling banjo’ flow between verses, vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Tweedy, Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn bash together a sharp fermented brew of a new brand of rock. “Whiskey Bottle” is a prompt-response segues from punk to harmonic steel guitars and slides.
Obvious influences include renditions of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and what sounds like a Neil Young and Crazy Horse cover of Creedence Clearwater Rival’s 1969 catatonic “Effigy,” originally appearing on “No Alternative,” a Nineties’ Modern Rock for Dummies compilation.
Farrar sheds vocals in the register of Neil Young, while Tweedy adds a raspy roots tone comparable to a Dylan or Woody Guthrie. This blend of folk roots is heard especially well on the acoustic version of “Looking For A Way Out” and the banjo shuffle of “New Madrid.”
“Anthology” is a collection of country-punk, roots and acoustic rock from the band’s three records on Rockville Records between 1989 and 1992, and their major label stint on the Sire/Reprise for 1993’s “Anodyne.”
Their last two records “Anodyne” and “March 16-20, 1992,” produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, show the keen mature alt-country acoustic gems and the shuffles characteristic of the splintered Wilco and Son Volt. Tweedy recruited drummer Ken Coomer and guitarist John Stirratt from the “Anodyne” sessions to form Wilco and move from their railroad town near St. Louis to the north end of Chicago.
Also much anticipated after a record label dispute is Wilco’s forthcoming “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” hitting shelves April 23 on eclectic label Nonesuch Records. “Foxtrot” comes a year after being available on the net via MP3’s and live cuts off the band’s website, www.wilcoweb.com.
Wilco has also teamed up with alt-folkies like British bloke Billy Bragg, Natalie Merchant and Corey Harris to create two albums of renditions to unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics, called “Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1 and 2.” The two albums were released between 1999 and 2000.
Farrar has maintained a legit solo career during and after three Son Volt records on Warner Brothers with Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn. His solo cohorts on last year’s “Sebastopol” include folk singer Gillian Welch and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster and the Flaming Lips’ Steve Drozd.
Stemming from college rock influences the Replacements and R.E.M., Uncle Tupelo is a quintessential pop-rock forerunner in what has become modern alt-country. “No Depression,” off their 1990 debut, was coined for alt-country magazine No Depression, the equivalent to a roots rock centered Rolling Stone. Hear their influence in the music of cohorts Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks, as well as bands like Ryan Adams’ Whiskeytown, Old 97’s, Matchbox-20 and R.E.M.