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 p