Monday, February 24, 2014


It's interesting to look back at what started the whole alt-country movement, at least in popular terms.  Nobody really talked about a scene that was building in the late 80's, although it was definitely there.  Many rock fans were starting to get into some honest country sounds, although still with a rock attitude; everybody from Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies up north, to the coolness of Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle from the U.S.  But then came a scene, that got called No Depression (after this album), and at various times Americana or alt-country or roots music.  Lots of different sounds got lumped in, but the starting point was much more intense.

Uncle Tupelo, from St. Louis, did get the thing moving with this landmark debut.  The power trio had two writers and singers in guitar player Jay Farrar and bassist Jeff Tweedy, and along with drummer Mike Heidorn made a heck of a noise.  It was at a time when country-rock still had a bad taste to it for many, based on too many Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd clones.  But there were others who had heard the old promise of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and also like their rock really raw.  Uncle Tupelo proved the two could mesh.  They wrote intense songs with punk energy, alternative college flavour (think early R.E.M.), but with country moments in the calm parts.  Banjo and mandolin could be heard when the volume lowered, there was a twang in the vocals, and rough-edged, rural themes all through it.  

Drinking was referenced in most songs, hard drinking for hard times.  Bible images showed up too, these guys knew why they were scared of their own attitudes.  But the biggest moment of all came from an off-the-wall cover, reaching back to the very dawn of country music, The Carter Family's original No Depression In Heaven, a fire and brimstone look at the dirty 30's, where the only hope people had was death and a better after live.  Just by this very reference, the genre was born.  A fanzine for the band, with the same title came next, and then quickly one of the best music magazines ever came from that, with the No Depression website still going strong.  Still covering the bands that came out of Uncle Tupelo's split too, Farrar's Son Volt, and Tweedy's Wilco.

This two-disc set offers a ton of demos, including the famous cassette, Not Forever, Just For Now, recorded the year before No Depression, pretty much the template for the album.  You get to hear just what caused all the excitement, as this was the tape that got the band named Best Unsigned Band in the States, from the influential College Music Journal.  Rolling Stone jumped on board too, and soon other bands emerged, such as The Jayhawks.  Listening back to the demos, it's surprising how much the band had figured out, and in fact the early versions are even more country, the go-for-broke guitar and volume hadn't been amped up to 11 yet.  The other interesting thing is just how explosive alt-country was at the start.  They'd blow Mumford and Sons out of the water, and you can certainly trace a direct line from this to all the roots-trad-folk-whatever that has come since.  Grab this deluxe version, for not only is it historically important, it's still a damn good, loud album.

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