Monday, January 27, 2014

Uncle Tupelo's No Depression

On Tuesday, January 28, 2014, Sony Legacy will release a deluxe edition of one of the most important records of the past 30 years: Uncle Tupelo's No Depression.

The record was first released by Rockville Records in June 1990, and slowly but surely Uncle Tupelo's hybrid of folk, country and punk took hold on the public imagination over the next three years (until the band's divergence into successor bands Son Volt and Wilco), helping to establish a branch of American music that remains vital to this day.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to write the liner notes for this new edition, largely because of my proximity to the band (as a music writer in St. Louis) during the time before and during the sessions for this record and the demo tape that helped secure the band its record deal (1989's Not Forever Just For Now).

The remastered tracks from that demo alone are worth the price tag for the new edition. Those who saw Uncle Tupelo live before they signed a record deal will likely tell you that they prefer one (or a couple) of the demo versions over the tracks on No Depression itself -- and that the demo captures the band at the moment when it was discovering its power and cohesion.

I'm not going to reproduce the liner notes here. (Ahem. Buy the record.) But one of the highlights of the project was not only talking to all three original members of the band (Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn and Jeff Tweedy) but to Tupelo manager Tony Margherita, longtime friend of the band Steve Scariano, and to Not Forever Just For Now producer Matt Allison -- who to my knowledge had never been interviewed about his role in crafting the demo that helped launch the band into the American alternative rock scene.

Allison has gone on to an amazing career as the owner of Chicago’s Atlas Studios, where he has produced bands including Alkaline Trio, Less Than Jake, The Methadones and the Smoking Popes, but he still fondly recalls making the demo in an attic studio in Champaign, Illinois:

Allison says that as he and the band put the final touches to Not Forever, Just For Now, “I realized even more how exceptional the songs and the band were. I remember very clearly feeling the emotional power of the songs, and how I would occasionally lapse into temporary periods of true melancholy as I was recording them; this despite the fact that I was probably happier in my life than I'd ever been.”

I am often asked about Uncle Tupelo, and what I make of the band's meteoric rise, messy breakup and subsequent music. I am a fan of the music that both Farrar and Tweedy have made since they went their separate ways, and follow them pretty closely.

But what strikes me as I listen to this early music by both of these songwriters is the restlessness that both of them possessed even in the early days of the band that made their names. They were experimenting with forms and genres throughout the band's short but sweet existence, mixing things up, never staying in the same place. Their manager Tony Margherita put his finger on it precisely in a quote I use at the end of the notes:

Looking back at the band’s journey, manager Tony Margherita observes that the band “never stayed anywhere for very long. They were more a river than a lake.” 

Want to read more? Buy the record. And read this nice writeup in American Songwriter magazine while you're at it.