#87: Uncle Tupelo, No Depression
By Jon Worley with Matt Worley

I was there, along with Long Dong Jesus, when Uncle Tupelo opened for fIREHOSE at the 1989 KCOU Birthday Party (the University of Missouri college radio station's birthday is October 31, and it always had a big show at the Blue Note club). My wife-of-the-future and lots of friends were there as well, and we took in the revels and plenty of dollar-a-pitcher Natural Light (the beer with the taste for food, remember?). I'm pretty sure this was the year I was a Bon Jovi fan (with my own t-shirt, seriously teased hair and the like), but it's possible that was the year I was a hooker and unintentionally enticed a very drunk friend (I was very skinny and had very long hair). Anyway, Long Dong Jesus (a guy with an actual wooden cross on his back and a three-foot dildo swinging between his legs like an obscene samurai sword) had the best costume by far (he won $100 for his trouble), so it doesn't really matter what I wore.

"The Toup," as more than a few of us called the boys, blew the roof off the place in the course of 45 minutes or so. It's not like Uncle Tupelo hadn't played Columbia before--one of the band's biggest early gigs was on the back porch of the Phi Kappa Theta house on Bid Day back in August of 1988, and it turns out that I had wandered through that show without knowing what I was hearing--but this was the band's first Columbia show with mostly original fare. And the last one before the band went off to record No Depression. Even though the guys matched Mike Watt pitcher for pitcher at the bar, they managed to pull off an amazing show, complete with an actual unplanned encore. Watt did not survive the bar, and he was so hammered that fIREHOSE only halfway made it through three songs. No matter. We had seen the future, and it was the Toup.

The band recorded three of its originals for KCOU that afternoon, and those CARTs with live versions of "Screen Door," "There Was a Time" and "I Got Drunk" (a CART is something like a re-recordable 8-track cartridge that radio stations once used for station breaks and special recordings) were seriously abused by DJs until No Depression arrived the next summer.

I've often referred to Uncle Tupelo as the "house band" of my college years, and the guys did play Columbia a lot. But despite Columbia's contribution to the band's success, Uncle Tupelo always seemed ambivalent about the town. "Whiskey Bottle" serves as No Depression's power ballad, and it is a lament about "people chasing money, and money getting in the way." The bottle of the song's title ("whiskey bottle over Jesus") is a reference to First Baptist Church in downtown Columbia, which has a steeple that is shaped very much like a Jack Daniels bottle. We always called First Baptist the "Donald Duck Church," because the oval cutouts in the steeple served as the eyes that contributed to an uncanny resemblance to the Disney duck in profile. In any case, the boys were generally jackhammer drunk and not in condition to play during most of their later shows. And the last performance, of course, was legendary for the refusal of Tweedy and Farrar to share the stage. But that was a few years down the road and a story for another album, in any case.

No Depression was a modest hit, selling a few thousand copies during the first year after its release in June 1990. Most of the sales were concentrated in the Midwest (and most of that along I-70 and I-55 between Lawrence, Kan., and Chicago), which makes the figure almost startling. In my rather sizable circle in school, everyone knew Uncle Tupelo. But I probably would have missed out had I matriculated anywhere else.

Uncle Tupelo didn't inaugurate the americana sound (I refuse to capitalize "americana," as it is not a proper name), but it did give the movement a name. A few years later, some folks in Chapel Hill started a magazine covering the sound, and they named it "No Depression." The song itself wasn't Uncle Tupelo's, of course. It was an old Carter Family song about dying and seeing the Lord (which describes an awful lot of Carter Family songs), but the title seemed to be an apt description of a particular evolution of American roots music. Bob Dylan probably did the most to send the music along this particular path, but the sound had been around at least since Hank Williams, if not before. The lines flow from Hank erratically through Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Bo Diddley. Dylan mixed in some Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and the Byrds, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones took things in wildly different directions. Gram Parsons distilled all of these ideas into a singular sound, one that still resonates through many americana artists today. The Jayhawks, who predate Uncle Tupelo as Midwestern masters of the sound, owe almost everything to Parsons. But not Uncle Tupelo.

No Depression sounds like the Replacements playing rural blues. The sound is raw, mean and often angry. The songs are about pain, suffering, disappointment and death. But they're played with so much gusto that they lift spirits with ease. That's the secret of the blues, and it served Uncle Tupelo well.

I'm not going to go through this album track-by-track. Every song is now a classic--and that's not just an MU boy talking. The album remains as fresh-sounding today as it did more than 20 years ago. Indeed, the aggressive sound is almost shocking when juxtaposed with the easy-rollin' stuff that serves as "americana" today. But then, the boys didn't set out to start (or further) a movement. They were just trying to make a living as a band. Truth is, they didn't. Drummer Mike Heidorn quit before the band's major label deal because he had a real job, though I heard from folks (very) close to the source that the increasing alcohol-fueled acrimony between Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy was a significant factor as well. And the fact that Heidorn has served as drummer for Sun Volt and most of Jay Farrar's solo work kinda underscores that as well.

But No Depression is a first album, not a final one. It is an album that portends a limitless future, even if we know what was to come (um, one more brilliant album, one great album and one very good one--in that order). No Depression is the soundtrack to my college years, days of classes and work and nights of chemical and copulative excess and other general naughtiness. There's just no way for me to be objective about something like that. Like the members of Uncle Tupelo, I've moved on. More work, fewer chemicals (current copulation rates not discussed on advice of counsel). But there will always be a part of me in that "three hour-away town." And I still get a warm glow every time I hear something from No Depression. As soundtracks to a life go, it's a pretty damned good one.

What I wondering about this Halloween story: did the $100 award cover the costume cost? How much is a three-foot dildo? Was Long Dong Jesus black? Or was the dildo?

Long Dong Jesus was white (I mean, we're talking Mizzou in the late 80s). I believe the dong was black, but I can't remember for sure. And I imagine the $100 covered the cost, though the schlong must have cost at least $50. If he bought that special for the costume (if you didn't have a three-foot dong in your closet during college, I say you just weren't trying hard enough), then maybe it was a close-run thing.

Case in point: I didn't hear about Uncle Tupelo until after they broke up. I think Jon gave me a dubbed tape of their live album (or that's what I bought after hearing a couple of cuts, not sure). I do have a couple Wilco albums (digitally), but that doesn't really count. Tweedy was sober by the time he recorded those (and they aren't in my list of favorites). Rarely does truly great music come from sober musicians.

You're absolutely right. The only great Wilco album is the first collaboration with Billy Bragg where they wrote songs to old (sometimes unfinished) Woody Guthrie songs. Mermaid Avenue. It was so good (and popular) that they did a pretty good (if not great) sequel. The whole Foxtwat Angry Chicken Hostel stuff? More interesting than good, if you ask me. As for the live album, you must be talking about March 16-20, 1992, which is mostly acoustic and could be confused for live. Who knows? For the longest time I thought that the singer of Alice Donut was a girl. These things happen.

And that's why Uncle Tupelo is better than The Jayhawks (no disrespect to Gram Parsons). Because being inspired by drunken madmen like the Replacements (also Midwestern) is way cool. As is touring with Mike Watt (and whatever band he's in at the time) even though Uncle Tupelo plays punky folk blues. Sometimes I wonder if punk, in the 80s, was more about travelling the country in broken down vans and playing rot gut bars, rather than an actual musical movement. Most of those 80s punkish bands didn't make it out alive. ONE GUY from each of those bands made it out and made some money (and was, of course, promptly labeled a sell out). The Ramones are still trying to get paid (and they're mostly dead).

To underscore your point, Uncle Tupelo had a great song on its second album called "D.Boon," not "Mike Watt." But then, Watt still isn't dead. And the Minutemen stuff has not held up very well at all--I'd go with the (early) Meat Puppets (yet another band where everyone didn't exactly survive intact) as slightly superior overall. And yes, Uncle Tupelo is better than the Jayhawks, though I still think at least one Jayhawks album might sneak in here. As for the Gram thing, the Toup did an awesome rendition of "Sin City" for the b-side of the "Sauget Wind" 7". In terms of greatness, though, the Toup never wrote a song as good as "Return of the Grievous Angel." Then again, pretty much nobody has.