The Men From Uncle

By Richard Byrne Jr.
The Riverfront Times, St. Louis, MO, 1989

It's closing in on 3 o'clock, and Uncle Tupelo is still in Belleville, Ill.

Most days, this wouldn't be a problem for Jay Farrar (guitar/vocals), Jeff Tweedy (bass/vocals), and Mike Heidorn (drums). But they have to be in Nashville, Tenn., for a gig at 7:30 that evening, and their instrument laden van won't budge from its last place of repose.

After close consultation between the band and manager Tony Margherita, the battery is identified as the culprit. A few minutes of scraping and cursing ensue before the jumper cables do their thing and the van starts up.

Margherita grins grimly as we pile in. "We're used to adversity," he says.

Uncle Tupelo hails from Belleville, where the streets have no names, only letters. Their apartment/rehearsal space is right beneath the long shadow cast by the crumbling Stag Beer factory, and just around the corner from the penitentiary.

For most local bands, such information would be irrelevant. Most area groups have tried to make careers out of blending in with the accepted norms of their musical genre (MTV pop-rock, heavy metal, blues rock).

But Uncle Tupelo has crafted a message and a sound that are uniquely the band's. Their obsession with alcohol, wasted youth, and the wrong side of the tracks are sketched vividly in the group's lyrics, but a visit to their neighborhood - squat houses, tiny bars, and decaying infrastructure - makes the source (and power) of their chosen themes apparent.

Their sound, alas, is harder to pin down, It's the indigenous American folk and country music, dragged kicking and screaming to the doorstep of the 1990s. To call them a "folk-rock" or "country-rock" band does them a serious injustice. Like it's home turf, Uncle Tupelo is perched between the country and folk music to the south and west of Belleville, the urban blues that filtered down from Chicago, and the sizzling Rickenbacker power chords that came across the pond from the UK earlier on in this decade. What makes Uncle Tupelo special is that they've balanced their influences against their innovative songwriting with an enthralling dexterity.

And best of all, they know it. Their live performances have become thunderclaps delivered to a devoted audience that shows up for every gig. Their wisdom, drenched in alcohol and shadowed by cigarette smoke, is dished out in plain but telling language. There's none of the Bruce Springsteen-like striving to forge teenage ennui into epic mythology (see the Boss' first three LPs) - it's the real story, told by real people.

Down here, where we're at
Everybody is equally poor
Down here, we don't care
We don't care what happens outside our screen door
          - "Screen Door"

So when I hit upon the idea to do a story about Uncle Tupelo "On the Road," I thought it would give me a chance to write one of those "local band makes good" stories that everybody in this biz likes to write. I could catch a band I love doing their thing in exotic circumstances. The fact that Tony Margherita and I decided on Music City, U.S.A., as a destination made it all the more alluring. (I thought of calling it "Uncle Tupelo: Beyond the Screen Door.") But what I learned and wrote was something quite different.

Nashville. Uncle Tupelo. What A Long Strange Trip It Was.

It's another day in this damn town
You keep asking yourself why am I still hangin' around
          - "I Got Drunk"

Hangin' around, indeed. Not five minutes out of Belleville, we stop to gas up their blue Beauville van and tank up on junk food for the ride through Kentucky into Tennessee. After the Pepsi and pretzel sticks, the Mountain Dew, Krunchers, orange juice, and Doritos are tossed into the van, we get underway for real.

The genius who said that "an army lives on its stomach" stumbled on an inviolable human truth. Mike Heidorn bit into the first of a series of microwave mini-mart sandwhiches that would come to haunt him hours later, and the rest of the army consumed its munchies in short order.

Strangely enough, there was little chit-chat - just munching, crunching and a mix of hardcore and country blasting from the speakers. I sat on the floor while Heidorn and Jay Farrar read the Saturday Sun and Jeff Tweedy thumbed through rock fanzines in the front passenger seat. So much for intense converstations about the history and philosophy of Uncle Tupelo.

All of a sudden, Heidorn pitched forward from his seat to the blankets in front of me, narrowly escaping my knees, I took his seat, while Farrar looked at the two of us.

"Guess he wanted to sleep," said Farrar.

After a while, the view from the window as the van moved south changed from flat, gray-whiskered fields to sloping hills still dotted with the last vestiges of autumn foliage. The van stopped in Paducah, Ky., and gassed up. Heidorn bought another sandwich. It got dark. The van blazed through Kentucky without stopping again.

With the exception of another pit stop in Clarksville, Tenn. (of Monkees fame), and another microwave sandwich, the ride to Nashville was uneventful, and soon enough, the bright lights of the big city were in full view.

I can't help but admit to a mixture of curiosity and awe. A music loved the world over makes its home in Nashville, and it seemed strange to come into town with a van full of guitars and amplifiers to hear a metro St. Louis band play their own blend of rock'n'roll. (I didn't see any signs directing motorists to the Opry, but I guess real country aficionados would just home right in like pigeons). I was also under the impression that Nashville was a swingin' city, a veritable party oasis fueled by great music and liquor.

But as Margherita swung the van into the Exit/In, the bar where Uncle Tupelo was slated to open for a local band called the Claimstakers, the illusion began to fade.

The Exit/In was tucked in between a couple of vile yuppie restaurants and a tiny shopping plaza, and sported a bright lemon-yellow and lime-green sign that could have easily graced a Subway sandwhich shop. Optimism (not a major player on the trip thus far) dipped to a new low.

It was due to dip a bit further. After parking the van, we entered the club to find that the headliners were doing a soundcheck cum rehearsal, discussing "bridges" and "chemistry" and "intensity" in loud Southern accents. There were "NO DANCING" signs plastered everywhere on the walls. We wondered what gave. Margherita went to find out.

"The place is open," Margherita reported, "but they've lost their beer and dancing licenses."

You couldn't have cut the incredulity with a chainsaw. "What's left?" asked Tweedy.

"They can sell hard liquor. But there's no beer and no dancing. Something about payoffs."

Surveying the dimly lit and thoroughly dead club they were due to play in two hours, Uncle Tupelo went off in search of liquid refreshment.

On liquor I spent my last dime...
          - "Before I Break"

If the club didn't have beer, our reasoning went, we'd go get some of our own for the club in a card/liquor store down the street. Two sixes of Bud, a six of Guiness and a six of Chihuahua were loaded onto the counter.

"You know that Guiness is $8.79," drawled the guy behind the counter.

"You've got to be kidding," came the reply. Bob Nashville shook his head. We trudged back to the refrigerator for two more sixes of Bud, and then trudged back to the beerless bar.

"You can't have that in here," said the bar manager in her nastiest tone.

"Not even in the dressing room?" Margherita asked.

The negative response sent us out into the frigid alley plastered with "NO LOITERING" signs to drink the increasingly frosty ones. One of the Claimstakers came out and the band quizzed him on the hassles they'd received so far.

"This is one of the only places in town to play original music," he said. "If this place closes, we're in big trouble."

So much for the indie scene in Nashville, we thought.

They say take relief from the common heat
          - "Outdone"

We took relief in a pizza joint across from the Exit/In, ordered up some pizzas, and talked about the band and their place in the St. Louis music scene. Surprinsingly, Uncle Tupelo doesn't see a permanent exit from Belleville as the best course for the band.

"There's a growing scene in St. Louis, and people are bound to take notice sooner or later," argued Tweedy, with nodding approval from the rest.

But staying put in Belleville isn't in their present plans. Heidorn wants to cut down on the hours at his day job ("I've already used up all my vacation time," he says), and Farrar and Tweedy have their sights set on getting an album out and touring both here and abroad.

Hence the present trip to Nashville, and past journeys to Iowa City, Columbia, Mo., Lawrence, Kan., Kansas City, Chicago, Memphis. "We're trying to reach new audiences with Uncle Tupelo's music," says Margherita of the group's wanderlust. "We keep playing to people who'd never hear our music if we played the Landing every weekend."

As we downed five pitchers of Killian's Red with our slightly burned pizza (the cook was busier singing and dancing along to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll"), the band recapped how the strategy was working. The group played at the CMJ Festival in New York, and copped a gig at CBGB's and a rave in Boston's alternative weekly "Phoenix" along the way. They are to the "lawyers" (Margherita's phrase) stage with an independent label ("We're not making a big secret of it," says Margherita, "but I don't want to jinx it.") that has distribution rights in Europe, and the group plans to take the early winter off to do some more recording. Uncle Tupelo seems primed to make its move in a big way.

And speaking of moves, it was time to ditch the pizza and do what they came to do. The Exit/In seemed emptier than when the group had left by the time they plugged in. Margherita tried to twist the manager's arm for a few free drinks, but the band ended up paying for the three rum and cokes they took on stage with them.

Though the crowd was sparse, you couldn't tell from the Tupelo's slashing, soulful set. In a situation where most bands would have waltzed through the motions, Uncle Tupelo was jumping, harmonizing, and winning over the 20 or so hard liquor devotees who braved the beer and dancing ban. They did a smoking-gun version of "Cocaine Blues" and a bangup version of "Graveyard Song." It was worth all the hassle to get there.

The band broke down, locked up the van, counted its money, and went across the street to another club to unwind. The band playing there was a loud Missing Persons clone, and we soon turned our attention to beer, the Nashville music scene, more beer, and an extended philosophical discussion on the best way to pick up blondes playing video games.

The bar was a diverting but fatal delaying tactic, because the worst part of the night is the long drive back from the gig. We made it back out to Clarksville before stopping again for gas at a one-stop place. Heidorn was saved from yet another microwave sandwich by cries of "Waffle House! Waffle House!" from this reporter and the rest of the band.

So we piled into tiny booths, ordered up a heaping helping of scambled eggs, raisin toast, bacon, and grilled chicken sandwiches. The microwaves had gotten to Heidorn, who declined his sandwich and retired to the floor of the van. The Waffle House manager (a guy named Jose) came over and asked us where we'd been.


"What were you doing there? There's nothing there."

We said we were there for a gig, and that we'd come all the way from St. Louis.

Jose smiled.

"St. Louis, man! That's where all the pretty girls are from!" Jose frowned. "What are you guys doin' HERE?"

Don't want to go to the grave without a sound...
          - "Factory Belt"

The Tupelos slept on the floor of the van for most of the ride home. Margherita made the red-eyed drive back to St. Louis, and I stayed up to keep him company.

I can't remember much about the drive, aside from straining my eyes to keep them open. We took about an half-hour nap somewhere near Paducah, and started the van up again just about when the sky started to lighten to the east.

But there was a lot of time to think during those five hours, with nothing but the country radio and some occaisonal chit-chat with Margherita (aimed at keeping us both awake). A trip like the one we were completing is the kind of thing that makes bands quit, fight, or play only the crowded and friendly gigs in front of their hardcore fans.

Uncle Tupelo and their manager had fought through battery trouble, stomach trouble, bar trouble, and apathy to play for one hour in front of 20 people getting sloshed on hard liquor, load their precious instruments into the van, turn around and bring it all home with nary a Jacuzzi, groupie, gratis drink, or Embassy Suite between here and there and back again.

You have to want success real bad to go through such lengths for it. What impressed me most about my road trip with Uncle Tupelo was that their talent was married to such drive. They're out there making a name for themselves with no record company support, no big-league investors bankrolling them. And when that record contract and tour do come calling (and they most certainly will), Uncle Tupelo will be ready.

Down here where we're at
All we do is sit out on the porch
Play our songs, and nothin' is wrong
Sometimes friends come around
They all sing along
          - "Screen Door"

Reading over this, I realize what an exitential bummer of an article it's turned out to be, and how, well, stoic the guys in Uncle Tupelo appear to be.

I was searching for a high point to end the article with, an anecdote that would catch the brighter side of this band. I could tell you the inside jokes that bands share over beers. I could list their various idiosyncracies.

But then I caught them at Off Broadway a week after our trip to Nashville, and I had my high point.

Don't get me wrong. They didn't play Off Broadway with any more intensity than they played the Exit/In. But they were cheered by a packed house that sang along, clapped vociferously and called them back for more.

Not only were there Uncle Tupelo fanatics that night, but the band managed to keep a lot of the folks who had come to see Cordell Jackson ("The Rockabilly Grandma") thrash out Link Wray-type chords, much to the amazement of all assembled. A lot of folks at Off Broadway that night came to see a novelty, and ended up being wowed by Farrar's power chords, Tweedy's leaps near the edge of the stage, and Heidorn's smash and crash on the cymbals. Even Cordell Jackson was asking for them afterwards.

If there's a band in St. Louis that is primed for success right now, it's Uncle Tupelo. And if there's a center to our rapidly growing music scene, it's their amazing blend of American folk music and abrasive, soul-searching rock 'n' roll.

(Thanks to Mark Janovec for sending this in.)

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)