Before alt – country took over the 90s, there was Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo. The band whose name was formed by literally putting together two random words from the dictionary together, will change music for decades. Tweedy and Farrar blended punk with blue collar country music from the ’60s and ’70s; thus, alt – country was born. The band will break – up before they reached commercial success, but No Depression will become one of the most influential records of the 1990s.
Uncle Tupelo is probably the most talented alt – country band of all time with Tweedy, Farrar and drummer Mike Heidron. After the band’s demise, Tweedy will form the iconic band Wilco, while Farrar forms the alt – country juggernaut Son Volt. Notably, both bands are still making music today. The creative feud between Tweedy and Farrar raged throughout the band’s short life. The rivalry between Tweedy and Farrar is one of those rare feuds that make The Beatles final years look mature and nuanced. Even though new members kept coming onboard to try to settle things down, everything fell apart in 1994. Having said that, No Depression stands as a timeless monument to a creative energy rarely seen in rock and roll.
The opening track Graveyard Shift is the template for all alt-country moving forward. Musically, there is a blend of punk, rock and traditional country all wrapped up in a story about blue collar America. The Hold Steady took a lot of inspiration from this track, as did Sister Hazel and the roots / alt – country scene. Crunchy electric guitars hum over driving percussion and Farrar’s classic alt – country vocal…a cross between a bottle of whiskey and regret. Even though Uncle Tupolo is credited with writing this track, Farrar had a major impact on this record. The fact that Tweedy gains more authority in the band is what ultimately drives them apart, but for now it is mainly Farrar’s show. You can see it in the lyrics. A mix of melancholy, distrust in authority (“the powers that be take it all away”) and suffering is at the core of Farrar’s lyrical formula. This is a formula that works extremely well on this record, but it will ultimately spell doom for the band.
Now it is time for Tweedy to try his hand at a track, which is Train. In this track you can hear the beginnings of what will propel Wilco into stardom. For Tweedy, music is an opportunity for storytelling and emotive introspection. Musically, this song is up beat and very catchy. However, Tweedy sings about a young man of 21 going off to war and wondering about what it all means. He sings about thinking about going to war and wondering if his death will have meaning. He had dreams of serving the country, but now he wonders if anything will change and what it is worth. Where Farrar tends to focus on the suffering and drinking in everyday life, Tweedy looks to tackle larger issues and the human condition.
The most well known song is both a cover and a song that started a musical movement. That track is the title track, No Depression, which was written and performed by the Carter Family in 1936. No Depression is about the Great Depression and dreams of a better future before death. It is a short folky country song from America’s musical roots. This track, and record, inspired the No Depression movement in alt – country. This movement is at the core of alt – country, which is a modern twist on traditional country / folk that largely told the story of the working class. One clear example is Wilco’s and Billy Bragg’s record Mermaid Avenue that focused on previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie tracks.
Uncle Tupolo’s debut record is both historic and excellent. Even though I prefer Tweedy’s writing, Farrar has a classic alt – country vocal that is synonymous with the genre. The storytelling of suffering and people’s everyday struggles is both emotive and universal. Unfortunately, Tweedy and Farrar could not work it out and Uncle Tupolo had to make way for Wilco and Sun Volt. However, No Depression stands as a monument to one of the most talented trios in alt – country history.
Listen to No Depression