Part of something big: How Uncle Tupelo shaped the musical landscape [Recollection]
By Robin Wheeler
My name is nothing extra, but the truth to you I tell. I am a coal miner and I'm sure I wish you well - "Coalminers" by Uncle Tupelo
I remember the first time I heard of Uncle Tupelo. Freshman year at the University of Missouri in the autumn of 1991, sitting in my dorm room with an old friend from my tiny hometown, listening to him bitch because the skirt he was chasing was making him go to an Uncle Tupelo show.
"I hate that country shit," he snarled.
Two months earlier, I would have said the same thing. Growing up in rural west-central Missouri, country music's de rigueur, and we had both had our fill. Making a rural escape with Nirvana and Pearl Jam as the soundtrack, there was no excuse to ever hear another word sung about the working class, whiskey bottles, and coal.
Except that's what I wanted.
I blazed out of my hometown as fast as possible, only to return weekly for the first two months to spend time with my dying grandmother. Being in the new environment I'd craved for years, only to be dragged away to experience a lingering, horrific death. Unable to jump into my new life while watching an old life end.
Most days I just wanted to go home, and nothing felt more like home than country music. Through the privacy of my headphones I'd sneak listens to the local country stations in between my public blastings of the Pixies and the Replacements that led to lots of unpleasant visits from my dorm's RA.
Based solely on my friend's ire and my acute craving for country, I started keeping an ear out for Uncle Tupelo. Three guys from a small town in Illinois that seemed a hell of a lot like the town I'd left, playing not country, but country infused with flavors of the punk artists just coming onto my radar - Iggy Pop, The Clash.
These guys were me.
So I sought them out, which wasn't difficult. Columbia, Missouri is only two hours from Belleville, Illinois, so it was well in UT's touring range. They were "local" to me. So imagine my surprise when I started seeing the band in Rolling Stone.
Something big was happening. Something big, and I was a part of it. On the edge, but clinging to it. R.E.M's Peter Buck was recording with them. And just like that, I'm connected to one of the first bands that caught my attention, showed me that there was more to music than what TV and radio stations from Kansas City fed me.
Being a country kid no longer meant tacky flash and sequins. It wasn't oversized cowboy hats and slick production that didn't sound much different from pop music. This was the first time since realizing Bruce Springsteen was singing about my blue-collar, industrial people did I really feel like an artist was articulating my experience. And they did it by taking the music beloved by my dying grandmother and blending it with the music that had started speaking to me.
I can't say I remember buying March 16-20, 1992. I just know it's always been in my record collection in one form or another, along with everything recorded by everyone on the album. It's been a part of my life's fabric since it arrived. It wasn't my favorite Uncle Tupelo album at the time, since it was so country. When they were new, "Anodyne" was the album that spoke to me the most.
I do remember a different day of record-shopping. In mid-October, 1994 - a week before my 23rd birthday - I bought three albums. Wilco's A.M.,Son Volt's Trace, and the Bottle Rockets' The Brooklyn Side. All three were début albums from bands fronted by Uncle Tupelo members who'd been a part of the March 16-20, 1992 sessions. A Sunday afternoon and feeling more comfortable in my skin than I was when I first heard about "that country shit," I sat in my car, ripping the cellophane from the CDs all at once. Enveloped in the new CD smell, I flipped through the liner notes, looking for familiarity. And it was there.
This is my music. It's about me. It's about the same experiences I've had. The same fears I've known. The same place that bore me.
Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt and the Bottle Rockets have remained huge parts of my listening life for the past twenty years. In them, I can hear my own evolution as a person. I don't know if the songs mirror me or if I mirror them. I don't care.
Funny thing: in 2007 my husband and I decided to move to Belleville, Illinois. We'd been in the St. Louis area for eight years and weren't happy with our neighborhood. After a lot of research we decided Belleville offered everything we wanted - excellent schools, easy accessibility to St. Louis, affordable housing, and a sense of independence and quirkiness that suited our weird family.
It's taken five years for friends to stop accusing me of moving to Belleville because of Uncle Tupelo. It's the school, the cute 1920s brick bungalows, and the art festival. Really! The fact that the streets run with Stag Beer is an added bonus.
I would be lying, though, if I said I don't feel the impact of the history that happened in my backyard. There are Tweedys and Farrars living in my neighborhood, and people who were a part of the same music scene that produced them. We have kids in the same school, buy our milk from the same corner market and have dinner at the same restaurant while we wave to one another from our cars on America's longest Main Street.
Try walking past the fountain in Belleville's town square without singing "New Madrid" under your breath. Go on. I dare you. It can't be done.
We didn't get the house we originally wanted to buy five years ago, and it's just as well. That house is slowly slipping into one of the abandoned coal mines that litter subterranean Belleville from the days when residents would illegally dig into the black veins below the town in hopes of finding a way out of financial ruin.
All those years I'd snickered about Farrar's fixation with coal miners, ignorant to the fact that he knew what he was talking about. Every word true.
I see the relevance daily. Hear it in the stories from my Belleville friends and neighbors who were there, too. In 1992 I had no idea how many of my peers were also touched by the collision of divergent musical worlds brought forth by one little band from a little town. I thought it was just me. But now, we have a tribe. It includes our families and children, our community, and runs like a coal vein through our lives. Rich and deep, the place we mine for what's most important: who we are and where we came from.