Uncle Tupelo Gets the Reissue Treatment
It’s unclear what strain of moonshine was mixed with how many parts distortion and Hank Willliams to create Uncle Tupelo. But ten+ years removed from their existence, the work that its founding members have gone on to produce validates Tupelo’s recordings as not simply lucky noise labeled “genius” or “important” by hipster reactionaries. In its earnest mixture of ragged black T-shirt punk and Appalachian rhythms of hope and despair, fellow songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy captured the day-to-day of Midwestern America, which they then harvested into themes: bored, drunk, and looking for a way out.
We’ll never know, but the band’s particular alchemy may have been experimented with elsewhere, in some uncharted American basement. After all, it’s not like they invented a new, never-before-seen color. Nevertheless, it is the music of Uncle Tupelo that’s knee-deep at the alt.country water source, heading up a bucket brigade that has led to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and No Depression magazine, Winona-dater Ryan Adams’ career, and Universal Music’s newly-minted Lost Highway Records. While not directly responsible for any of these examples, Tupelo’s early catalog is constantly cited as the progenitor of all things y’allternative.
Farrar and Tweedy know this. Ever since their parting of ways after the Anodyne tour of 1993, the two have followed separate musical paths united by an oft-stated wish: Don’t make us the two-headed Moses of Insurgent Country. The work of Son Volt and Wilco is steeped in the same American musical landscape that inspired Uncle Tupelo, but the two songwriters have been conscious of letting their respective post-breakup work develop on its own. To that end, Tweedy’s Wilco has emerged as an Americana tableau art-rock experiment, while Farrar has played it a little closer to the vest with Son Volt, travelling down dark highways reminiscent of his Tupelo days. (Lately however, Farrar has diversified a little. “Sebastopol,” his current solo project, is an airy mix of pop-ish arrangements and the Bakersfield sound.)
Part of what keeps the vitality (and legend) of Uncle Tupelo’s early work alive is that three out of their four records are out of print, and have been for quite a while. Rockville Records is no more, and Tweedy and Farrar had to jump through some hoops to regain the rights to 1990’s No Depression, 1991’s Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20, 1992, their last for the erstwhile label before Anodyne, the 1993 swan song, released on Sire Records. Rights secured, March 19 sees the release of Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology, a retrospective to be followed by remastered, repackaged additions of Uncle Tupelo’s entire Rockville catalog, with bonus tracks and outtakes to boot.
The tracklist, according to the Columbia/Legacy press release:
1. No Depression
2. Screen Door
3. Graveyard Shift
4. Whiskey Bottle
6. I Got Drunk
7. I Wanna Be Your Dog (Prev. Unreleased)
9. Still Be Around
10. Looking For A Way Out (Acoustic Version)
11. Watch Me Fall
12. Sauget Wind
13. Black Eye
15. Fatal Wound
18. The Long Cut
20. New Madrid
21. We’ve Been Had
This is an extremely comprehensive song list. It embodies the highs, the lows, the beer-soaked rock and roll moments, and the puke-stained tear jerkers, all of which define Uncle Tupelo’s influential sound. And for fans of “California Stars,” the compilation will likely achieve what the press release boasts: “So if you haven’t heard them – or maybe just heard of them – now’s the time to re-discover on of the most important bands of our time…”
Cynical comments aside, it will be interesting to see what the reissue of Uncle Tupelo’s catalog will do for the band’s confusing legacy as heroes of a genre they unwittingly created. And how will the re-issues effect the Farrar and Tweedy’s current fanbases? Will the re-emergence of the old material, in conjunction with, say, the long-delayed physical release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, finally give Wilco the boost into the big time that is allegedly always around the corner? Probably not, and that’s by choice. Wilco left their old label for a reason, and it wasn’t because Reprise was encouraging their avant-garde take on Americana. But whatever happens, and whatever Uncle Tupelo’s legacy really is, the upcoming reissues will be important as documents to four years’ worth of incredibly honest, rocking, sad music, that deserves to be listened to on its own merits, and not built up as some sort of golden calf in a cowboy hat.