No Depression Revisited

The reissue of Uncle Tupelo's albums offers the world a chance to ponder how 'alt-country' got started

More impressively, the band also patented a dynamic, lurching, twangy din that was the perfect setting for its tales of blue-collar dissolution and woe. It was a thrilling and distinctive sound, but one that has inspired surprisingly few disciples. Not counting Tupelo spin-offs Son Volt and Wilco, and besides Blue Mountain and Whiskeytown (both defunct), what even marginally significant band has mined the sound of "Graveyard Shift" or "Gun"?

If the concept of "alt-country" hadn't broadened to include retro honky-tonk and swing, bluegrass, other varieties of Americana and just plain old rock 'n' roll, the movement would have expired long before Tweedy and Wilco plugged in their synths. Uncle Tupelo's real musical impact, for better and for worse, is hard to identify, coming down mostly to a persistent if vague tone of dead-end disaffection and the long-since-predictable use of twangy color instruments.

Still, though its musical influence is, at present, narrow and not even very deep, Uncle Tupelo put down strong roots. Indeed, it's the band's grounding in a specific time and place that might be its most attractive quality, and ultimately its most enduring and most country qualities, too. The group's brief catalogue is sprinkled with titles -- "Chickamauga" and "New Madrid," "Sandusky" and "Factory Belt" -- that evoke the sprawling Mississippi River basin. And Farrar's and Tweedy's songs consistently convey the way it feels to be trapped in small towns and working-class suburbs where, during the early '90s as well as today, there are few decent jobs and little imagination for change -- except in the individual desire, as Jay Farrar phrased, to keep "Looking for a Way Out."

Son Volt, Wilco, whatever: It all started with Farrar and Tweedy's first band.
Son Volt, Wilco, whatever: It all started with Farrar and Tweedy's first band.

Or not. "Don't call it nothing," Tweedy implores on Still Feel Gone, surveying his home and his dull prospects. "This might be all we'll ever have." That's hardly a hopeful sentiment, but it's not a despairing one, either. Between hope and despair, "between a land of paradise... [and] a land of pain," is where most of us live, after all, and it is precisely there that Uncle Tupelo got very drunk, dug in its heels and made a last noisy stand.

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