My Town, My Band, Not Quite My Record…At First: Uncle Tupelo -- March 16-20, 1992 [Recollection]
Editor's Note: In our final installment of our look back at Uncle Tupelo's album, March 16-20, 1992, writer Jeff Fields personalizes his bond with the band from his hometown. If for some reason this is not enough information for you, more details about the band can be found at this NPR story from last year.
by Jeff Fields
Belleville, IL is (in)famous for more than a few cultural exports. I could begin a discourse about Stag beer, Jimmy Connors or Bob Heil, but none of the aforementioned notables ever inspired me quite like Uncle Tupelo. They played my house, they went to my high school and they played my kind of music.
My hometown is Belleville. I grew up here and live here today. It gives me a different perspective on Uncle Tupelo than most I guess. You always root for your hometown favorites and Belleville didn’t really have any. When Jay Farrar & Jeff Tweedy released this record I knew they were no longer just another “band from Belleville”, but were destined for much more.
My first exposure to Uncle Tupelo was a No Depression cassette tape I borrowed from a friend shortly after it was released. After dubbing the tape, I immediately wore it out and bought my own copy. Eventually that tape wore out too, which forced me to purchase the CD, which I still own today. A fifteen year old with burgeoning musical tastes longs for something different and Jay, Jeff and drummer Mike Heidorn were a much-needed change from the MTV fodder I was surrounded by.
Uncle Tupelo’s album recording timeline ran parallel to my time in high school - 1989-1993. In such pivotal time for most near-adults, you can learn quite a bit about yourself. One of my own revelations was an insatiable appetite for music in all forms. The first concert - of my choice - I attended was a great show that featured my hometown boys and a great Minneapolis band opening, The Magnolias. This was Tupelo’s first headlining show at St Louis’ premier concert venue of the time, Mississippi Nights. The date was March 20, 1991. I was eleven days shy of my 16th birthday and could taste my vehicular freedom.
After procuring a two-tone blue 1980 Chrysler Cordoba for the very Brian Henneman price of $1000 I knew good shows were coming my way. Subsequently missing their summer show at the same venue, likely due to a waxing interest in the opposite sex, I vowed to make the next one. They were working on a record and maybe they will have a show when that CD is finished. September rolled around and Still Feel Gone was purchased on release day at my local Streetside Records. They really didn’t have a CD release show as best I can remember, but they were going to play again in November. With a car full of friends I made my way to Mississippi Nights once again. This time the Texas Instruments opened, they put on a great show just as the Magnolias did at my previous show. Opening bands can be great and can expose you to new music, but I wanted my Tupelo. I stood right down front and sang all the songs from No Depression and Still Feel Gone. They played a few covers and a song I didn’t know at the time called “Moonshiner.”
Around this time my mom got remarried and we all moved into my stepfather’s sizeable home. I now had stepsiblings who were older and younger than me. Blasting music was a right of passage for teenagers back then. My guess is now they just make “killer play lists” and cut the limiter on their ear buds…or something like that. The sounds that spilled from my room were often those of my favorite local trio and my older stepbrother took notice. He asked me what I was listening to and I told him Uncle Tupelo. He said he went to high school with Farrar and Heidhorn and that they had classes together. Instant cool points were applied to the scoreboard. He began to tell me a story of how they played a party at my new home a few years back. The group performed back when they were The Primitives and was a four-piece cover band. If memory serves me, the gig was a birthday party for my brother and the group never got paid any of what they were promised. Maybe he said the cops came, maybe it was embellished internally over the last 20 years. Either way it doesn’t matter…they played where I lived. It seemed cool to me and still is.
Most of the music that I connected with around this time was heavier and “mathy.” The Dazzling Killmen and The Jesus Lizard were creeping into heavy rotation during 1992. The stop/start rhythms of the first two Uncle Tupelo records seemed to marry the jerkiness of the Minutemen, the heavy/punk vibe of The Stooges and cover it all in a layer of a modern Gram Parsons influence. Having no idea what drew me in at that point, I just knew what I enjoyed and Tupelo’s first two LP’s were the pinnacle. I’m fairly certain I left just as much oxide in the bottom of my car stereo as was left on the cassettes themselves by the time their next album was released. My musical appetite (and cassette deck) we ready for the new record.
Another release date visit to Streetside and I had copy of what I already knew I was going to love. As I plunged my key into the cellophane and instantly popped the tape into my car stereo there was an instant disappointment. Where is the raucous electric guitar? There is electric guitar…but it’s a pedal steel. At this point in time for me it held as much importance as a bouzouki. Little did I know I was getting a dose of both on this release. They had acoustic songs on previous records; maybe they’re mixing it up a bit on this one. “Coalminers” kicks in and I’m sure at that point I knew I was in for a different record than I expected. This song is slower than the one before. I felt duped or at least alienated from what I thought our relationship was. Looking back, the feeling is akin to watching the neighbor of the serial killer interviewed on the news speak of how “so and so” was a super guy that you would trust your kids with. You never would have expected “so and so” to have 15 bodies in his house. In my scenario I was the neighbor, Tweedy, Farrar and Heidhorn with producer Pete Buck were the serial killers and the 15 bodies were these songs they delivered me.
Growing up in the Midwest you are inevitably exposed to some country music. It’s prevalent and all over the radio. I grew up with some Jerry Jeff Walker and a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival thanks to my pops. Mom wasn’t so nice; she pummeled me with Eddie Rabbitt, Alabama and The Oak Ridge Boys. My grandparents were into the good stuff, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, but if you can’t connect with your parents’ taste, your grandparents are a lost cause. The realization of how cool my grandparents’ music library was came only after losing my grandfather. They had more Haggard records than I had ever seen in one place. By this time I had developed a reverence for country music. This was at least six or seven years after March 16-20, 1992 was released.
Religious themes were much more present on this record. Sure, they touched on religion a few times during the first two records, but nowhere near as much as on their acoustic masterpiece third LP. I remember this seemed to bother journalists more than it ever bothered me, but it did seem odd at first after a ton of grain belt anthems and drinking songs. After a few spins I realized the religion gave these songs much of their power. Life and death, heaven and hell…these are universal concepts and everyone can relate. They seamlessness of flowing from a 120 year old song into one that was finished this week in the studio is staggering. This timelessness of style from song to song is what truly places this record such legendary regard. It has impact because it dared to be so different than their records that came before and all other records released during this period.
Of course Farrar and Tweedy are the heart of this record, but the secret weapon is the Crown Prince of Jefferson County, Brian Henneman. He helped to round out the very stark arrangements of most of these songs. Henneman was also a massively integral part of their live show at this point also. His skill in this regard is undoubtedly why Jeff Tweedy brought him back into the fold for the first Wilco record A.M. Buck deserves some credit too, but not for his ten seconds of feedback that he performs on the record. He probably did more psychological production than physical. I’m sure his belief in my hometown boys was far more important to the sound of this record than letting them borrow his bouzouki. His magic was instilling the confidence needed to make a record that sounded nothing like the Uncle Tupelo any of us had heard. At the time, rumors floated around that this record was a big “fuck you” to Rockville Records to complete their three record deal. This was their last independently released record and I think all parties involved knew that the band was meant for a bigger stage at this point. If this very simple record truly was envisioned as an insult to a record label, then they succeeded smashingly in pleasing fans while pissing off the label. Somehow I doubt this scenario, but it does make for a great dramatic backdrop.
Most of my friends were wise enough to sense the vast talent in Tupelo’s recordings. There were weekend nights when we would congregate in my dimly lit room - or someone else’s - and just listen to March 16-20 1992 and not speak until the record was over. Steve, Dan and Bart we my closest friends at this time and we were all just awestruck at how much emotion could come though such simple acoustic songs. “Fatal Wound” would tear us open with its slow sad tone and subject. Without “Sandusky” to break up the drear emotion one would certainly be in tears by the end of Jay’s “Wipe the Clock”. These two heart-wrenching songs seem to close the album with a loss and hopelessness that could not have been possible with electric instruments on earlier records. To this day both these songs remind me of high school loves, or the lack there-of, just as they did in ‘92 & ’93. My high school years ended summer 1993 and Uncle Tupelo ended just a short year after that.
During this 1992 time frame I also remember making a visit to Farrar’s mom’s used bookstore. My intentions were to try and meet and talk to Farrar if only for a second. I heard he worked there if there weren’t on tour. I decided to go in one day and there he was, manning the cash register in a store that seemed overloaded with Louis L’Amour and bad romance novels. While pretending to be browsing the store I was just sneaking glimpses of the guy who I really admired. Eventually I made my way to the counter and proceeded to unnaturally start an extremely awkward conversation. This was my first dose of the very dry and reluctant Farrar. I probably told him his group was amazing and I was a real fan, then he probably said only “thanks”. I left feeling under whelmed by the interaction and bit disappointed, but with a feeling that Farrar was a real guy who didn’t have rock star airs. My initial thoughts at the time were probably a bit negative and overly harsh, but he was just guy at work trying not to be bothered. Time gives me the ability to look back and respect the man for his modest honesty. Hindsight will only increase the importance of this record. In a very digital and automated modern world these guys made a natural analog classic. They both exhibited the same brutal honesty in their performances on March 16-20, 1992, which will undoubtedly endure for many years to come.
P.S.: I still would love to drink a Stag and hang out with Bob Tweedy - Jeff’s dad - who lives 3 houses down from my friend Bill. I just want to talk music with him. If you see this Bob, please email me. I’ll buy the Stag. It would be my honor!
Uncle Tupelo - The Long Cut - Promotional radio program (2003) [CLICK TO LISTEN]
- How one album can change your life: Remembering March 16-20, 1992 by Uncle Tupelo [Recollection] (3minuterecord.wordpress.com)
- Part of something big: How Uncle Tupelo shaped the musical landscape [Recollection] (3minuterecord.wordpress.com)
- How I started to love country music: March 16-20, 1992 [Recollection] (3minuterecord.wordpress.com)