There are more folks who have heard of Uncle Tupelo than folks who have actually heard the much-missed proto-No Depression combo's music. They are a larger-than-life myth. "Didn't Paul Bunyan play slide on Anodyne?" people might ask. Even if they've never heard Uncle Tupelo, the first time someone says the name, they use a reverential tone. Saying "Uncle Tupelo" is like saying, "I do." Listening to their music's like kissing the bride. And, for your ears, the rest of time's a honeymoon.
This is their daunting reputation, anyway. In reality, Uncle Tupelo were an excellent band whose influence and importance have been greatly inflated. They have the unofficial title as the country-rock equivalents to the Velvet Underground, yet singer/guitarist Jay Farrar, singer/bassist Jeff Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn never approached their craft with VU's knowingness. The origin of the Tweedy/Farrar sound emerged organically. The two listened to punk, but they were exposed to traditional artists like the Carter Family and Merle Travis by their families. Hence you get the trademark Tupelo dichotomy of distortion pedals and pedal steels.
89/93: An Anthology, the first Uncle Tupelo career retrospective, explores their sound chronologically, plucking a handful of tracks from each of their four albums. In addition, two previously unreleased and three non-album tracks are included. Among those rarer cuts, some are decent (a demo of "Outdone" and a cover of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog") and some are essential ("Sauget Wind" and a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Effigy").
"Sauget Wind," previously only available on a scarce 7-inch and a Dutch East India compilation, is easily the best song Jay Farrar has yet written. The lyrics detail the pollution problems of Sauget, Ill., a small town near Tupelo's birthplace of Belleville, Ill. "An industrial wind/ It blows from the West/ It'll burn out your eyes/ And suck out your breath," Farrar sings while an accordion howls mournfully behind him. Songs such as "Sauget Wind" tap into Uncle Tupelo's greatest strength conveying a sense of complete hopelessness. Others, such as "Looking for a Way Out" from Still Feel Gone, claim that life is terribly wrong, and to such an extent that nothing can be done to fix it. Tweedy's voice best expresses the feeling. His high-pitched croak sounds so defeatist it seems like he's already settled for last place.
Uncle Tupelo's lyrics gather up the discarded items of a lower-class life, the empty Coke bottles, well-worn Bibles and clipped coupons that, in many ways, are defining. Most of the band's first album, 1990's No Depression, functioned this way. Songs like "Whiskey Bottle," "Graveyard Shift" and "Screen Door," all included on the new compilation, create an identity based on physical articles. The titles alone reveal that the band's mindset was burrowed in the limits of their own working-class backgrounds. Using genres like punk and country to express these feelings buttresses the themes even more. But the two songs that best exemplify this approach, "Postcard" and "Punch Drunk" from Still Feel Gone, are unfortunately omitted from 89/93. Only three tracks from Gone, Tupelo's sophomore release and most underrated album, appear here Tweedy's "Gun" and "Watch Me Fall" and Farrar's "Still Be Around."
Then comes, as Rolling Stone scribe Anthony DeCurtis writes in the excellent liner notes, Tupelo's greatest moment, March 16-20, 1992. On this largely acoustic, somber album, both Tweedy's and Farrar's songwriting became much more consistent. Improbably beautiful, each song rings with acoustic strums and strained voices. The arrangements could not be any sparser, but the sound remains lush. The two Tweedy cuts from March "Black Eye" and "Fatal Wound" are the most dour of the bunch, both using physical injuries to examine emotional trauma.
Following their cover of "Effigy," also available on the No Alternative benefit comp, the retrospective moves on to Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo's final album. "New Madrid," one of the three Anodyne album cuts featured, may be the group's most popular and enduring song (it's one of the few that Tweedy consistently performs with his post-UT band, Wilco). The simple melody is comforting and timeless in part because of its offhand performance. The ominous, apocalyptic opening lyrics ("All my daydreams are disasters/ She's the one I think I love/ Rivers burn and then run backwards/ For her, that's enough") seem so carefree juxtaposed against the gentle pluck of a banjo.
Tupelo's sincere songwriting style was informed equally by their love of traditional country music and an identity based on their surroundings. That's the reason why their music has garnered so many overzealous fans and such high praise Farrar's pessimistic lyrics and Tweedy's worn-down voice convey an authenticity that many people identify with. Or, to be more accurate, an authenticity that many people wish they could identify with. Whether or not Uncle Tupelo deserve to reside in rock's premiere canon is certainly debatable, but the quality and passion of their music, which is well documented here, cannot be denied.