History Lesson

By Holly George-Warren
Updated March 14, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

With their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on 2002’s ”best-of” lists and a film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, documenting the making of the album, Wilco have been more visible in the last year than in all their previous eight. So why not revisit the band that spawned them? Uncle Tupelo — singer-songwriter-bassist Jeff Tweedy, singer-songwriter-guitarist Jay Farrar, and drummer Mike Heidorn — blended punk with hillbilly music’s rootsy twang. From ’88 to ’94, their frenetic live shows and recordings influenced numerous alt-country acts, popularly known as ”No Depression” bands, an appellation taken from the title track of UT’s 1990 debut album (originally recorded by the Carter Family in 1936). Now the Belleville, Ill., trio’s first three records, long unavailable, have been digitally remastered and will be reissued in April by Columbia/Legacy with rare bonus tracks; their 1993 major-label debut, Anodyne, was also rereleased this week on Sire/Rhino, with five additional songs.

Heidorn, who jokes that he feels ”guilty” about birthing an underground rock movement, attributes Uncle Tupelo’s impact in part to lyrics that ”connected with people who weren’t interested in songs about cars and girls — trains and liquor, maybe.”

When Uncle Tupelo splintered in ’94, Tweedy formed the eclectic Wilco. And Heidorn joined Farrar in the highly regarded Son Volt, which went on hiatus in 1998. (Farrar also just completed a second solo CD, Terroir Blues.) But a magazine and website called No Depression, as well as roots-rock bands like the Old 97’s and Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, carry Uncle Tupelo’s alt-country torch.

After listening to the reissued No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20 1992, Farrar says: ”The sonic quality is discernibly improved on quite a few of the songs. We were too busy playing shows in those days to be involved in the mastering process.”

Can we expect a reunion any time soon? ”Uh,” Heidorn hedges, ”I’d guess they haven’t announced the ground-breaking for the Uncle Tupelo Theater in Branson just yet.”