(Re)Collection #41: Uncle Tupelo
Updated: Mar 31
I have always loved the big, blustery, anxious and anthemic American rock bands. Husker Du, Snatches of Pink, Drivin n Cryin, Prisonshake, the Replacements and Soul Asylum immediately spring to mind. Back in my youth, I was forever on the search for new additions.
I had my eyes peeled for the record that would become my new love, my new reason to live. It sounds a little silly now, but it was the truth. Nothing spoke to me as intimately as music did.
I moved to Chicago in January of 1989 and soon realized that most of the good record stores were up north. I used to drive up to the north side of Chicago from Hyde Park in my blue Honda Civic hatchback on the weekends and go record shopping at Reckless, Wax Tax!, Blackout, Dr. Wax and 2nd Hand Tunes, among others. I looked forward to it all week.
In late 1990, I added new heroes to my pantheon, Uncle Tupelo. I found them while looking for Soul Asylum records by way of a friendly and helpful record store clerk. Those two attributes rarely go together in a record store clerk's personality. I got lucky that day. The guy introduced me to Uncle Tupelo's first LP, No Depression.
The record was firmly in my wheelhouse. A little Neil Young & Crazy Horse, a little Soul Asylum and a lot of country and roots rock. I immediately liked them. I was taken by the yin and yang of Jay Farrar's haggard and Jeff's more casual vocal styles. It struck me as unvarnished and authentic. Both were so world-weary yet open-hearted. It reminded me of Sometime to Return from Soul Asylum's last great record, Hang Time.
And I was impressed that young guys could sound so worldly. I was able to suspend disbelief and let them in.
From the very first listen, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy felt familiar. They sounded southern in the same way a person from Maryland or Virginia sounded to me growing up in Washington, D.C. And I rarely heard a group of people my age make music that mixed older and more current sounds and styles in a way that felt modern yet classic.
In early 1991, I decided to go back to school because I had no idea what else to do. (It would turn out to be a terrible idea). I applied for graduate school at the U of C for the Fall of 1991. I was interested in American immigrant history and how this country was built by disparate groups of immigrants over time. I got accepted.
I started in September and quickly found a history professor who I really liked. I started to work on what I hoped would become my thesis. My professor attempted to guide me towards a topic that I could successfully research and write about. I gravitated towards the story of two immigrants from Germany who started a steel company in LaSalle-Peru, Illinois in the 19th century. The paper that would have resulted might have been good had someone else written it. But I couldn't figure out an angle from which to approach it.
I would drive my little Civic out to the archives at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb a few times a week for 3 months and dig through old documents and records. I had never done anything like that before. I interviewed people in Lasalle and Peru. I drove around anxiously, taking it all in and listening to No Depression dubbed onto cassette. On repeat. I must have listened to the record 100 plus times.
Small town Illinois was such a different world. Whatever Jay and Jeff sang about seemed related to what I was seeing. I felt like I was driving around in a different era, in an old time movie, and their music was melancholic, exciting and, oddly enough, soothing.
As the research project slowly derailed, that record was the constant. It was the soundtrack. Then the themes of the songs began to mirror my own entrapment, disillusionment and failure.
Alas, without a target and focus in my research, I sank into a depression about it. I had nothing interesting to say, and it was apparent to my professor and my fellow graduate students that I was floundering.
Then the music of Uncle Tupelo become something else again. They were actually showing me how to seek a way out of my current miasma. It wasn't anything as specific as instructions or a directive. Instead, it was their example. They were peers and they were doing it--being in a band. The thing I romanticized and dreamt about. As a young man, I longed to escape what seemed to be a grim destiny. I didn't want to write about other people's lives, I wanted to live out my own life in an exciting way. Travel, adventure and music. If this sounds corny, I am corny so it fits.
I connected to that romantic urgency and yearning for something new and better. It is something I am always looking for in music. And sadly it is something I miss nowadays. Perhaps because music isn't so mysterious to me anymore. Being in a touring band is no longer the unattainable dream. And I am not as much of a mystery to myself as I once was.
Back in 1991, Uncle Tupelo was my soul-searching guide. Jay's and Jeff's voices oriented me. Now I know that kindred spirits are rare and wonderful. I did not realize that then. I took it for granted that when one faded another one would always be there to take its place.
No Depression should have been written in all caps and italics with an exclamation point at the end--NO DEPRESSION! Do not waste your time on depression! Banish it! That is always a good message, even if I don't think they intended it that way. That title is the name of the Carter Family song they cover on the LP. However, to misapprehend a message is my right. And I have always had a knack for it.