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Uncle Tupelo Biography

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Birth Place: Belleville, Illinois, USA
Years Active: 1987–1994
Genres: Alternative Country, Alternative Rock, Country Rock

Uncle Tupelo was an alternative country music group from Belleville, Illinois, active between 1987 and 1994. Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn formed the band after the lead singer of their previous band, The Primitives, left to attend college. Uncle Tupelo's sound was unlike popular country music of the time, drawing inspiration from styles as diverse as the hardcore punk of The Minutemen and the country instrumentation and harmony of the Carter Family and Hank Williams. Farrar and Tweedy lyrics frequently referred to Middle America and the working class of Belleville.

The trio signed to Rockville Records and released their debut album, “No Depression,” which was recorded over ten days in January 1990, at Fort Apache South recording studio in Boston, Massachusetts. Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade produced the album. Rockville Records refused to pay the band any royalties for “No Depression,” a theme that would continue for the remainder of the band's contract.

Farrar, Tweedy and Heidorn formed a country cover band named Coffee Creek, along with Brian Henneman Henneman impressed Uncle Tupelo, and he was invited to be a guitar technician and occasional multi-instrumentalist for the band.

Over seventeen days in 1991, the band recorded a second album at Long View Farm in rural North Brookfield, Massachusetts. “Still Feel Gone,” with a more layered sound, was also produced by Kolderie and Slade, with contributions by others.

Peter Buck, guitarist for R.E.M., saw the trio perform at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia and sought them out after the show. Buck was impressed and offered his services for their next album. Over a span of five days, Buck produced the group's next album, “March 16–20, 1992.” Buck allowed them to stay in his house during the sessions, and charged no money for his services. Henneman's role was increased for this album, and he taught himself how to play mandolin and bouzouki.

Despite turning away from the style of popular alternative rock, major labels began to show significant interest in Uncle Tupelo after “March 16–20, 1992” was released. The album sold more than their two previous recordings combined, although Rockville was displeased that it did not conform to the style of popular alternative rock.

After Rockville refused to pay Uncle Tupelo any royalties for their album sales, the group left the label and signed with Sire Records in 1992. Heidorn left the band at this point, and was eventually replaced by Ken Coomer. John Stirratt replaced Henneman (who left to form The Bottle Rockets) while Max Johnston, joined as a live mandolin and violin performer. Stirratt became a full-time bassist, allowing Tweedy to perform more songs with the guitar.

Now a five-piece, Uncle Tupelo recorded their major label debut at Cedar Creek studio in Austin, Texas in early 1993. “Anodyne” consisted of live-in-the-studio recordings and included a duet with Farrar and Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet. The album sold well and was their only entry on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.

Shortly after the release of “Anodyne,” Farrar announced his decision to leave the band due to a soured relationship with his co-songwriter Tweedy. Uncle Tupelo split in May 1994, after completing a farewell tour. Following the breakup, Farrar formed Son Volt with Heidorn, while the remaining members continued as Wilco. A retrospective compilation, “89/93: An Anthology,” was released in 2002. Today, all of the band’s Rockville recordings are out of print, while the major label releases other than the promotional items remain in production.