In The Spotlight: Uncle Tupelo

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

There is very little that can be considered “new” in the world of popular music — everything builds on something that came before, and influences get combined in different ways. So the idea that you can declare the inventor of a musical genre is ridiculous. Uncle Tupelo didn’t invent alt-country, a mix of country, rock and punk (check out, say, Jason and the Scorchers, the Long Ryders, Rank and File, X, or the Blasters, for example, for proof that these strains were already well mixed when Uncle Tupelo emerged). But it cannot be denied that Uncle Tupelo’s debut album No Depression, which gave its name to the influential message board and magazine that spearheaded the movement, helped to kickstart the genre’s popularity and became one of its cornerstones.

And it all started with a bunch of high school kids.

Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy met in English class at Belleville (Illinois) West High School in 1981, and found a common (and unusual for the time and place) interest in punk rock. Farrar was from a musical family, and Jay, a guitar player, along with his older brothers Dade, a bass player, and Wade, a singer, had a garage-rock band called the Plebes. Tweedy, a novice guitarist who was initially too shy to sing, was allowed to join the band because they needed another high-school-aged member to qualify for a battle of the bands. However, Tweedy, who started to arrange bookings for the band, disapproved of the Plebes’ move toward a rockabilly sound. This led to probably the first major dispute between Jeff Tweedy and a member of the Farrar family, and it resulted in the departure of Dade from the band. At about this time, Mike Heidorn, another classmate of Jay and Jeff, joined the Plebes as their drummer. The band changed its name to The Primitives (or, sometimes, Primatives), who began to integrate a punk ethos into their music by playing everything fast. Here’s a cover of the theme from the TV show The Munsters done by the Primitives, featuring the young Mr. Tweedy on bass (he’s the one in the dress).

With Wade Farrar as their charismatic leader, the Primitives began to gig regularly and became reasonably competent. But Wade’s focus was split — he was an engineering student at Southern Illinois University and took his studies seriously, but was running up student loan debt. He announced that he was leaving the band to join the Army, but he screwed up his paperwork and was not accepted. Then Heidorn broke his collarbone, and the Primitives were on a hiatus, although the three remaining members still wrote songs and practiced as best they could. When Wade wanted to casually gig, he found that his younger buddies had left him behind, and had become Uncle Tupelo, named after a “fat Elvis” cartoon drawn by a friend. They wanted to be professional musicians, and wanted to play music that was diverse and included the hard edge of punk.

The trio recorded a short demo cassette, Colorblind and Rhymeless, which led to additional gigs, including opening slots for Johnny Thunders and Warren Zevon — and the sound of this demo makes it clear that the emerging Uncle Tupelo could appeal to fans of both headliners. A second demo tape, Live and Otherwise, included covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Cash, and Black Flag, and while the band developed a portfolio of originals, their live sets often included similarly diverse covers. A third demo, Not Forever, Just For Now, containing only original songs, was fawned over in the music press and resulted in the band being signed by Giant Records, which later was renamed Rockville Records.

Uncle Tupelo’s debut album, No Depression, was named for their cover of the Carter Family’s classic country song, and embodied their customary mix of influences. Produced by Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie (because the band liked their work on Dinosaur Jr.’s Bug), the album, a thematically stark reflection on the band members’ youth (or at least a version of it) also included a Leadbelly cover. It was well received critically, for the most part, although Robert Christgau was unimpressed. As discussed above, though, it helped to give an identity a community of like-minded musicians and fans who began to connect on the nascent Internet. The second album, the underrated Still Feel Gone, was all originals, and again mixed rock, punk and country influences.

Peter Buck, the R.E.M. guitarist, had become an Uncle Tupelo fan, and he and the band independently had considered doing an acoustic album, as a way to focus on their musical roots and songwriting, as a reaction to the pressure from the music business for “the next Nirvana,” and as a “screw you” to their record label, which was not paying them royalties. Buck invited the band, and the trio, along with Brian Henneman, a friend and roadie, who was a talented musician and later founder of the Bottle Rockets, jumped in a van and drove to Buck’s house in Athens, Georgia. The ensuing release, March 16-20, 1992, is a dark acoustic album, with nearly half of its tracks covers of traditional or folk songs.

The album sold more than the previous two albums combined, and led to a major label deal and the recording of Anodyne, with an expanded lineup and new drummer. That album, which included a joyful cover of Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Keys to My Heart,” featuring Sahm sharing lead vocals, appeared to put Uncle Tupelo on the cusp of stardom.

Instead, they broke up. By all accounts, the high school friendship between Farrar and Tweedy had long deteriorated due to disputes about many issues – musical, lifestyle and otherwise – and often turned physical. And, as it happened with the Plebes, when Tweedy became too much to handle, a Farrar decided to leave the band. At the time of the breakup, the general belief was that each man thought the other to be an egotistical jerk (and both were probably right), although Farrar later claimed that the precipitating event was seeing Tweedy coming on to his girlfriend. A final tour followed, as a favor to the band’s manager, but the tension was manifested when Farrar refused to sing backup on any of Tweedy’s songs. Shortly after the tour, the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo formed Wilco, while Farrar created Son Volt (along with former Uncle Tupelo drummer Heidorn).

Even in this era where band members seem to regularly bury the hatchet and get back together, the chance that there will ever be a Uncle Tupelo reunion seems to be virtually zero, as the same passed time has not appeared to have diminished the hard feelings between the two principals. You can see some of that tension in the story, discussed here, that Tweedy has told about a chance meeting with Farrar on the beach. And while both of the primary songwriters of Uncle Tupelo continue to create excellent and interesting music, it certainly would be fun to see the two of them on stage together. But don’t hold your breath.

Although they left behind a relatively small body of work, the reputation of Uncle Tupelo has only improved as time has passed. The band’s ability to mix so many seemingly incompatible styles in a way that made sense continues to resonate. And, as we will see below, their choices of covers illuminate their influences. To keep it interesting, we’ll focus on covers that were not on the original studio albums.

Uncle Tupelo – I Found That Essence Rare (Gang of Four cover)


What most critics focus on when discussing Uncle Tupelo is the way that they combined genres. But sometimes, they just played it straight, by the loud fast rules. Their cover of Gang of Four’s “I Found That Essence Rare” was a live favorite, a no-holds-barred blast of punk energy. Featuring the metallic, angular guitar sound of the original, Farrar’s prematurely mature voice, and Tweedy’s ragged harmony, the song betrays little hint of the band’s future course, and it would have been easy to dismiss the group as just another punk cover band. But every once in a while, Farrar’s singing betrays the more Americana-oriented style that helped make the band influential and would make him (moderately) famous.

Uncle Tupelo – Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones cover)


Giving a nod to the Rolling Stones, Uncle Tupelo covered “Dead Flowers” in this 1988 live recording. When they wrote the song, Jagger and Richards were exploring adding country sounds to their trademark mix of blues and rock. This was a result of Richards’ friendship with Gram Parsons, who is usually credited as being one of the creators of country-rock, a clear forerunner to Uncle Tupelo’s alt-country sound. Parsons was similarly an influence on Farrar and Tweedy, and Uncle Tupelo released a cover of his classic “Sin City,” as the B-side to their first single in 1990.

Uncle Tupelo – Gimme Gimme Gimme (Black Flag cover)


Unlike the Gang of Four cover, this live cover of Black Flag’s hardcore song is transformed into a loping country rocker (after a punk tease). Featured on Uncle Tupelo’s Live and Otherwise demo tape, it shows that even at that early stage, the band (1) liked to mix things up, (2) had kind of a snotty sense of humor, and (3) could play pretty well. The certainly weren’t the first band to slow down and twang up a punk song, and they wouldn’t be the last, but this cover is another signpost pointing directly to where the band was heading.

Uncle Tupelo – I Wanna Destroy You (Soft Boys cover)


Here, on a song that was the B-side of Uncle Tupelo’s second single, they take the opposite approach and toughen up the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You.” To these ears, the cover, with Farrar’s stentorian voice and Heidorn’s pounding drums, makes a more convincing and menacing threat of destruction than the original, featuring Robyn Hitchcock’s nasally vocals. Although the original is still pretty great.

Uncle Tupelo – I Wanna Be Your Dog (Stooges cover)


Another “I Wanna” cover, this one of a classic by proto-punk pioneers the Stooges, has been released by Uncle Tupelo in two very different versions that again demonstrate the different ways that the band mixed its inspirations. The version linked to above was originally recorded during the sessions for Still Feel Gone. According to drummer Heidorn, the band played it live, drunk and loose, and decided to record it the next day. What you hear is the one and only take. As Heidorn has noted, summing up the Uncle Tupelo sound, “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.” And, consistent with the band’s approach at the time, this version starts quietly, before building to a roar. The second version, recorded the next year, is an acoustic demo that sounds like it was recorded around a campfire, and transforms Iggy’s sneer into Tweedy’s yearning.

Uncle Tupelo – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (Neil Young cover)


It would be hard to argue that Neil Young wasn’t the single biggest influence on Uncle Tupelo. No other artist combined folk, country, rock and punk the way that Young did, and as a result, Uncle Tupelo often covered Young (as have Wilco and Son Volt). The original version of “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” created a template for many Uncle Tupelo songs—country twang mixed with rock guitar, and it is fitting that the band included this cover in their last ever show in 1994. Consistent with the occasion and the band’s state of mind at the time, it is a stomping rocker that, despite their differences, includes vocals from both future former bandmates.

Much of the historical information above is derived from Greg Kot’s great book Wilco: Learning How to Die, which you can buy here. More Uncle Tupelo information is available here and here, and you can get their officially released music on Amazon and iTunes.

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