Saturday, April 20, 2024

No Impression: How I Didn’t Discover Uncle Tupelo

It was at the Chicago nightclub Lounge Ax in late ’88 — or maybe it was early ’89 — and I was waiting for headliner Evan Johns and the H-Bombs to come on. But first was a set from a loud, frisky trio from the St. Louis suburbs that sounded like yet another band in flannel trying to be the Replacements, or at least Soul Asylum. Having just moved from Austin (via San Francisco) I was already filled up on sloppy exuberance, but Uncle Tupelo almost won me over with an out-of-left-field Carter Family cover. Almost.

Afterward, I chatted with the guys at the bar and told them I enjoyed the set even though, truth be told, I couldn’t wait for it to end so Evan could take the stage and show ’em how it’s done Austin-style.

I didn’t hear anything special in the band that would become one of the most influential of the ’90s.

Uncle Tupelo inspired the creation of a magazine, No Depression, and an alt-country movement that’s outlasted grunge. Almost 10 years after the band splintered into Wilco and Son Volt in 1993, Uncle Tupelo is attracting new fans every day. They’ll be well-served by Sony’s just-released “89/93 An Anthology,” which chronicles the Tupe’s transformation from midland rockers to Appalachian wannabes to a group that mixed tradition with aggression to come up with a whole new style of country rock. For me, it’s like hearing the songs for the first time. In some cases, I am hearing them for the first time. Oh, boy, did I miss the boat on this one.

“Have you listened to our record yet?” Jeff Tweedy asked me time and time again after “No Depression” came out in 1990. He was a sweetly moody kid who filled in as bartender at Lounge Ax on busy nights, like when the Gear Daddies or Eleventh Dream Day headlined. But I couldn’t be bothered to play the album he and Jay Farrar (who had a penchant for disappearing when it was time to load or unload equipment) had just released on Rockville.

I was from Austin, the home of Butch Hancock, Junior Brown, Joe Ely and countless other acts that brilliantly updated rural music for modern times. I didn’t need some kids from Belleville, Ill., to enlighten me. I was too busy championing Enuff Z’Nuff, who I was convinced would soon be the biggest rock band in the country.

Then one night, I put on “No Depression” as I got dressed and it made no impression.

“I love your record, Jeff,” I lied when I saw him that night (Trip Shakespeare packed the place). “Great stuff.”

Uncle Tupelo had a gig coming up at Lounge Ax, and since they usually drew only a couple dozen people, I thought I’d throw ’em a little press in the Chicago Sun-Times. I scheduled a little 200-word news bit on the group and called Farrar for an interview. Though bassist Tweedy was emerging as a creative force within the group, Farrar was still the main guy. But he’s the most inarticulate man on the planet. Over the course of a 30-minute “conversation” he may have said 10 words, not counting “uh, um, ya know.”

The only thought he completed was that the kids in his neighborhood made fun of the band’s name (which, Tweedy told me later, was inspired by the image of Elvis Presley settling for the life of a truck driver in Tupelo, Miss.). So for 200 words I winged it, working in factoids about the band’s new album around a series of taunts (“Hey, Jungle Soup-alo”) from kids on the block.

“I’ve lost all respect for you,” Tweedy told me, half-joking, when the article came out. At the time I thought he should be happy for any press, but unbeknownst to me the band was attracting little pockets of praise in ‘zines all over the country. A second album came out (“Sorry, Jeff, I’ll listen to it this weekend”) and slowly the group built a big following in Chicago. There was even talk that R.E.M. were fans. I still didn’t get it.

Then the backporch album “March 16-20” came out and I finally heard what the fuss was about. Farrar’s “Grindstone,” an entirely original swipe at traditional country, was all it took.

A couple of years later I was living in Dallas and I stopped by to see my old pals, now a five-piece with the additions of Max Johnston (now with the Gourds) and John Stirratt, at Club Dada. One of them gave me a tape of a record they’d made at Cedar Creek in Austin a month or so earlier. “Anodyne” it said in white letters across the cassette. Jeff said they’d recorded a couple of tracks with their hero Doug Sahm, and I probably gave a superior smirk. Back then, only a handful of people (most of whom lived at Red River Motors) regarded Sahm with the reverence he has since assumed in the afterglow.

When I played the tape — with “New Madrid,” “Acuff-Rose” and the Sahm duet on “Give Back the Key To My Heart” and so much else — I couldn’t believe that the band from Belleville, whom I once snubbed because they weren’t up to Austin snuff, had made the best album ever recorded here.

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