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Uncle Tupelo’s ‘Anodyne’ at 25: An Oral History

Before Wilco and Son Volt, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar invented alt-country with the mercurial Uncle Tupelo

Uncle Tupelo, Anodyne

Uncle Tupelo released their final album 'Anodyne' on October 5th, 1993.

When Americana pioneers Uncle Tupelo released their major-label debut, Anodyne on October 5th, 1993, it should have been the beginning of something big.

In a way, it was. Led by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy from tiny Belleville, Illinois, the alt-country movement’s promising breakout band was packing clubs in major cities across America and Europe, not just the college towns where they spent years building their fan base.

They were following up their left-turn acoustic record, March 16-20, 1992, recorded with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, with their best record yet — one that amplified the band’s strongest assets, the marriage of Jay Farrar’s yearning heartland spirit with Jeff Tweedy’s punk-rock soul.

Anodyne smoothed the jarring, start-stop rhythms of the band’s first two records, No Depression and Still Feel Gone, into a straight-ahead steamroll behind new drummer Ken Coomer. Farrar’s barbed guitar riffs sear on “Chickamauga,” where he compares a crumbling relationship to a Civil War bloodbath. Quieter moments such as the title track flex the strength of new multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, who played dobro, banjo and fiddle, and former guitar tech John Stirratt, who held down bass when Tweedy switched to guitar.

Despite the buzz, Uncle Tupelo never had a hit. Their closest brush with fame was playing Late Night with Conan O’Brien on national TV, and they didn’t break the Billboard Top 200 until the compilation 83/93: An Anthology peaked at Number 173 in 2002. But following the band’s final show, a mere six months after releasing Anodyne, the band’s influence grew as Farrar and Tweedy found success with Son Volt and Wilco, respectively.

Eventually, the friction between lifelong friends Farrar and Tweedy brought down the band at their biggest moment. Tweedy rushed the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo into the studio to record Wilco’s 1995 debut A.M., while Farrar took the long cut and found success with the hit single “Drown” on Son Volt’s Trace a year later.

Farrar has continued to wrestle with obscure, early country and folk music and his textured guitar wranglings over eight solid albums. Wilco has evolved from a Tupelo-twin to an engine of reinvention, from the deconstructionist country-rock of 1996’s Being There to the shimmering heartbreak of 1999’s Summerteeth and 2001’s experimental Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Although the two have apparently reconciled since the band’s final show in 1994, Anodyne is where the fissures in their friendship, and Uncle Tupelo, grew into a fault and spawned two of Americana music’s biggest bands.

Part I: Nobody Likes ‘Em Where They’re From

Cary Hudson (The Hilltops, Blue Mountain): They had made a cassette release, and they sent it to the radio station in Oxford, Mississippi. The DJ there said, “Hey, we just got this tape in. I bet you guys would like it.” We somehow touched base with them. They were touring out of Belleville, we were touring out of Oxford.

John Stirratt (The Hilltops, Wilco): They got a cassette of [1989’s] Not Forever, Just for Now. I think it might have been the second self-released cassette that Tupelo did. We were all really knocked out by it. On the back of the cassette, there was a phone number, and it was Tony Margherita’s home phone number — the longtime Wilco, Uncle Tupelo manager.

Gary Louris (The Jayhawks): I have a vague recollection of those guys kind of following us around a bit. They showed up at some shows and they wanted to jam. I didn’t know who they were. I’d just gotten done with a gig, and I didn’t feel like jamming with people I didn’t know. I think Marc Perlman, our bass player, did though.

Stirratt: Our band the Hilltops were the rock band in town. We had country leanings, but when we heard Tupelo, it was very influential. We probably leaned on that a bit more. We called the number on the cassette, told them we had a cool club down here, we would open for them if they would come down.

Louris: We had gotten to know each other, but I’d never seen their band. Jeff got in touch with me and said, “We’re playing at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis, you should come down.” And I was just like, “Holy shit.” They were great. Whenever they’d come into town, they’d end up sleeping at my place in the early days.

Hudson: We played at their album release when No Depression came out [in 1990]. They would come and stay with us in Oxford, and we’d stay at their house in Belleville. They had a fridge that was filled with nothing but beer, and a huge trashcan that was filled with nothing but beer cans.

Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers): I was in a band called Adam’s House Cat from ’85 to ’91, and we played the Antenna club in Memphis opening for Uncle Tupelo one night and that’s the first time I’d heard of them. No Depression had just come out, and it hadn’t even started getting much press yet. I don’t remember what the turnout was. I mean, it was a small, little punk-rock dive bar. It probably held 250, maybe 300 tops, and it wasn’t full, but it was more people than we would’ve pulled at the time.

Joe McEwen (A&R, Sire Records): When I got that first tape, I probably didn’t pay that much attention, and then the first album came out, No Depression, so I was aware of them. The manager, Tony Margerhita, kept in touch with me and I would see them when they came through New York.

Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco): I was in a band out of Nashville called Clockhammer. We were working with producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we were doing our first record for a BMG subsidiary [in 1991]. While we were loading out, Uncle Tupelo was loading in [to record Still Feel Gone]. It was Mike [Heidorn, drummer] and Jeff and Jay. We just sort of shook hands and they had that old blue van that I got to know a little bit about.

Louris: They brought me in to play some guitar [on Still Feel Gone]. By then, the tracks were kind of coming together. It was much more of a rock record. It has some rootsy feel to it, but it had a lot of indie rock and some punk-ish kind of rock. They weren’t quite embracing the acoustic direction that they did with Anodyne.

McEwen: It was really the March album [March 16-20, 1992] that woke me up, and I think a lot of people. I like the other records, I just didn’t really see where this was going to fit in in my head, you know? But the March album was great. It was something different in the fact that they went backwards to go forward. It wasn’t alt-rock, you know, it wasn’t any of the things that were on MTV — Buzz Bin or Alt Nation or whatever those outlets were. It stood out in a different way, and kids were responding to it, and I responded to it myself.

Max Johnston (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco): My sister, Michelle Shocked, was having a big tour [the ill-fated Arkansas Traveler Revue in 1992] with her and part of the Band. Robbie Robertson wasn’t there. It was [Garth] Hudson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko. Taj Mahal was on it, and Uncle Tupelo of course. Michelle wanted me to come out, so she flew me out to Boston or something. When I got there, she knocked on [Uncle Tupelo’s] hotel room door and shoved me in and she said, “You’re staying with these guys.” I don’t know if they were aware that I was even gonna be involved, but they were extremely accommodating. They invited me up [on stage] to play mandolin and fiddle and a little banjo here and there. But we’d all get up on stage at the end, like the big encore. The Band and Taj and Tupelo and everybody up there. That was really awesome.

It was a lot of chaos going on so that tour really didn’t last very long. The way I remember it, there was something about Michelle wanted them to play “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and they said, “No, we don’t play that no more. We don’t do that.” I think that’s what the deal was. They quit, and everybody that was on tour was making a decision whether they want to stick around or not. I remember people said, “If the Band’s off, I think we’re off, too.” And [Uncle Tupelo] took off, and they said, “Well, do you want to come with us?” And I was like, “Yes, I do.”

Stirratt: In the fall of ’92, I got a call from Tony. They wanted to find out if I wanted to replace Brian Henneman, who was a guitar tech, but also in the Bottle Rockets. Not only had I never been to Europe, but it was a way to jam with the guys more, which we had done a lot on the road with the Hilltops. We had really good times just playing music with them. I had never been a guitar tech before, but I knew how to change strings.

Coomer: My first gig was at Lounge Ax in Chicago [in early 1993]. I didn’t realize it was sold out, but it was like wall-to-wall people. We get on stage and the first one we did was “Gun,” and there’s a break where I’m supposed to count it in, and I just sort of sit there like deer in the headlights. There’s Jay and Jeff staring at me like, “OK, you can do it. Let’s go.” And then I was fine. But the pause was a much longer pause than anticipated.

Hood: In the early Nineties I’d moved to Athens, Georgia, and was wanting to put together a band, and a friend of mine made me this mix tape of all this old-timey country stuff, the kind of stuff I’d hear at my great uncle’s farm, or he would play, that I didn’t embrace at all growing up. But I heard it with fresh ears. I just fell madly in love with that mix tape and started buying every old-timey country record I could find, and right around that time, I kinda rediscovered [Uncle Tupelo]. The one that really hit me at that time was the one Peter Buck did, because I was listening to all that old-timey country. I was just in the early stages of putting together the Drive-By Truckers right at that moment in time.

Coomer: Every night being on stage and hearing Jay’s voice in my monitor was pretty freaking exciting. As a three-piece, I remember just being up there and Jeff would do his songs and then Jay would start singing and I was like, man, what voice is that? Honestly, I think he has one of the greatest country voices, for being under 50 at the time, that I’ve ever heard.

Part II: If You Still Believe, Let’s Take the Long Cut

Louris: Joe McEwen was really good friends with our producer, George Drakoulias. We were making records out in L.A., and I got to know him that way, and really liked him. I was just kind of the torchbearer for Uncle Tupelo in those days.

McEwen: Gary Louris happened to be in my office once, and he said, “You should really sign those guys, Uncle Tupelo.” He knew I was interested in them somewhat, and that just triggered something. Like, “Yeah, I need to do this.”

Louris: I just made my pitch and said, “I’ve seen them, they’re great. They’re kinda this combination of the Minutemen and Woody Guthrie.” So, if I had any part in it, I’ll take credit, but I don’t remember the real details other than the connection between me and Joe McEwen was George Drakoulias.

McEwen: I met with them out in St. Louis — Tony, Jay and Jeff. I promised them creative freedom, which they certainly had, and then they went to Austin and made Anodyne.

Brian Paulson (Producer): I might’ve seen them at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis, because they were friends with the Jayhawks, who were friends of mine. They were producer-shopping for Anodyne, so I went to Chicago to the Lounge Ax to see them. I think it was one of the first shows they played with Ken. We hung out in the basement and talked specifics of making a record, kinda feeling each other out.