3 Minute Record

"We learned more from a three minute record baby than we ever learned in school..." -from No Surrender by Bruce Springsteen

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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.

Belleville postcard
Belleville postcard

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.

How one album can change your life: Remembering March 16-20, 1992 by Uncle Tupelo [Recollection]

Editor's Note: 20 years ago today, the three members of Uncle Tupelo stepped into John Keane Studios in Athens, GA to begin recording their third album with producer Peter Buck, best known as the guitarist for R.E.M. Five days later they had a finished record. Over the next few days the owners of 3 Minute Record will give our thoughts on how that album changed our musical landscape. - Scott

Gimme back that year, good or bad. Gimme back something that I never knew I had. - "That Year" by Uncle Tupelo

I remember the evening vividly. A typical hot, sticky August night in St. Louis. I picked up my longtime friend Steve Kuhlman in my 1968 Chevrolet Camaro and we drove to the Granite City location (R.I.P.) of Vintage Vinyl to look for some new records. Little did I realize that one particular trip would be etched in my brain 20 years later.

In August 1992, I was a recent high school graduate of Collinsville High School just hanging out with friends and counting the days before I moved away to the University of Missouri - Columbia to begin my college education. The act of going to a record store was nothing new. I'd been doing this for years frequenting a store called the Record Company at their locations in Glen Carbon and Granite City as well as the chain stores in the mall. However, during my junior and senior years of high school I started attending shows at clubs on the Landing in St. Louis. Places like Mississippi Nights, Kennedy's and the Bernard Pub opened up a new world of possibilities to me about music. Up until this time I was content to buy records and listen to music in my room or on my Walkman. With a driver's license, a car and a little knowledge, my universe began to expand as rapidly as I was driving that V8 engine.

Now, armed with what felt like secret knowledge, I went out on the weekends to see national touring acts as well as local bands. I dug through the pages of the Riverfront Times, still owned by founder Ray Hartmann, in the constant search of new venues and new artists. Here I learned about the local music scene and started following bands like Pale Divine, Three Merry Widows and The Finn's.

While looking around the store that summer night, I stumbled upon the recently released album, March 16-20, 1992, by Belleville based band, Uncle Tupelo. Excited, I bought the new release ready to hear what it had in store. After leaving the record store that evening we headed back to my parents' house to shoot some pool on my parent's pool table. At the time, I had a new JVC dual CD/dual cassette boom box that I had received as a high school graduation present, which I left downstairs to listen to music. I removed the shrink-wrap to open up the compact disc to play. The first thing I noticed was the stark artwork; a modern twist on those early '60s records. Second, I was excited to see guitarist Peter Buck, of my favorite band R.E.M., had worked with a band as producer.  

At the time I purchased the albumI already owned the band's first two records, No Depression and Still Feel Gone, andI had seen them perform live a few times at Mississippi Nights. Early Uncle Tupelo shows were a dichotomy of power and energy mixed with slow, country balladry. They exuded a punk vibe carried over from their unique blend of the post-punk of Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and Black Flag and country music. However, as I listened to the new record, it became abundantly clear that Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidhorn had intentionally made a drastic change in course. This new batch of songs was completely different from much of their early material.

During the previous couple of years I had already begun a fascination with folk music, specifically the work of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. However, March 16-20, 1992 marked a distinct turning point in the development of my musical tastes as a listener and a fan. While Nirvana had shaken the apples off the tree in a fit of raw power, Uncle Tupelo, however, took a decidedly different course. In an anti-establishment turn, which now we realize Jay Farrar is wont to do, the band eschewed the current sound for one that had been pushed to the fringe decades before. For many fans, Uncle Tupelo's blend of country, rock, and punk served as the same type of touchstone in indie circles as Nirvana and the Seattle music scene had for mainstream rock. Yet, on March 16-20, 1992, the band focused completely on the country and folk side of their music and helped launch what began to be referred to as "Alternative Country" and eventually "No Depression" after their first album.

My first inclination that something was radically different from their other work - the album is almost entirely acoustic. Yes, they had performed acoustic country music in the past as they had included covers of the Carter Family classic "No Depression" and Leadbelly's "John Hardy." However, the songs included on the latest record were haunting, politically charged ballads that spoke to the state of the working class in the early '90s - a place that Farrar and Tweedy knew all too well from their upbringing.

The album's liner notes revealed that there were 8 original songs flanked by 7 covers. One song I recognized was the traditional song,"Moonshiner," which I knew from the Bob Dylan box set, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 Rare and Unreleased 1961-1991 released just the year before. The other cover songs completely changed my perspective on country and folk music, for example, "The Great Atomic Power" by the Louvin Brothers and "Come All You Coalminers" by Sarah Ogan Gunning.

Furthermore, I was impressed how well the original songs crafted for the album blended perfectly with the older material. Tweedy chipped in with three outstanding originals - the bouncy upbeat folk of "Wait Up" with its heartbreaking lyrics about love going bad, the gorgeous ballad "Black Eye" and the solemn "Fatal Wound," a song with as much, if not more, power as their classic "Whiskey Bottle." It's Farrar's contributions to the record, however, "Grindstone," "Criminals," "Shaky Ground" and "Wipe The Clock," paired with his readings of the covers and traditional material that give the project its depth and authenticity.  In a future foretold, Farrar continued in his post-Tupelo career, with both Son Volt and his solo material, to follow the path set forth on this record. Whereas with Wilco, Tweedy followed a more commercial road that brought him the success, fame and indie credentials he seemed to covet.

That Fall, while at the University of Missouri, I volunteered to work at student-run radio station 88.1 KCOU. I started my training and eventually got on the air for a couple of shifts in the 2-6 a.m. slot. To this day I still have a cassette tape of one of the shows that started with playing the Uncle Tupelo original instrumental, "Sandusky," followed by Woody Guthrie's "Grand Coulee Dam." When the music exemplifies a certain classic quality the new and the old blend seamlessly together and artists become intrinsically linked across generations. For me, classic country and folk music became another genre to dig into with the same ferocity as rock, soul and rhythm and blues. All it took were a trio of musicians from a couple of towns over and just a few years older than I to give me an introduction.