No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20, 1992 constitute three quarters of the short-lived band's immeasurably influential body of work, but the little indie for which they were recorded went belly-up some time back, and wasn't exactly the rock of Gibraltar before that.
Now reissued (with generous bonus tracks and liner notes) by Columbia Legacy, the discs are a window into the birth of the trend that has no satisfying name but is usually called alt-country. Songs like "Graveyard Shift" expose the inadequacy of that moniker: Yeah, it's about small towns and twangy working-class concerns, but 30 seconds into Uncle Tupelo's first album, it delivers a punk jolt serious enough to throw your neck out of whack. Throughout the first two discs, the group sounds more like a circular saw than a country band, which is not to say they couldn't unplug for tunes like the Carter Family's "No Depression."
Their third release took them farther in the latter direction, for a mostly acoustic album where originals were almost outweighed by coal mining laments, Louvin Brothers tunes, and battle cries in the Gospel war against Satan. In the liner notes, Jeff Tweedy describes how March 16-20 gave rise to the myth of Uncle Tupelo: "People really wanted to believe we were coal miners: 'They've been sitting on the back porch playing these songs with their granddaddies.' No, man. We learned the songs at the library. Bought 'em on records."
(They "bought 'em" on records like the John Cohen-produced High Atmosphere, collections of field recordings where backwoods unknowns sang songs as old as the hills. Cohen's latest production, a group of Roscoe Holcomb performances called An Untamed Sense of Control (Smithsonian Folkways) is an excellent example, with expert banjo picking and a voice as raw and haunting as any put on record. Check out his dirgelike "Man Of Constant Sorrow," if you think the version in O Brother, Where Art Thou? was too much fun to be sorrowful.)
March is widely considered a watershed event for "alt-country," but the band's swan song, the Austin-recorded Anodyne (freshly reissued by Rhino) carries more weight in my book. Not only does it feature brilliant originals like "Slate" (by Jay Farrar, who split from the band to form Son Volt) and "Acuff-Rose" (by Tweedy, who picked up the pieces and founded Wilco), it's also where the songwriters really sound like they're connecting with all the country-rock pioneers who popped up between the Carter Family and the Minutemen - from Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose famous cover of "Suzy Q" is revisited here on a bonus live track, to Doug Sahm, who joins the band for a plaintive take on his "Give Back The Key To My Heart."
In the nine years since the band's breakup, Tweedy has moved farther and farther from this country-rock territory. But Jay Farrar continues to refine his version of it, most recently on the soundtrack to The Slaughter Rule (Bloodshot). Here new Farrar instrumentals are interspersed with, for example, Vic Chesnutt's spooky new interpretation of "Rank Stranger," the Flatlanders' "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," and a rare Uncle Tupelo cover of Gram Parsons' "Blue Eyes."
In other Slaughter Rule-related news:
A) One of the disc's most welcome tracks is an unreleased Louvin Brothers cover by Freakwater, whose Janet Bean just released her first "solo" record, Dragging Wonder Lake (Thrill Jockey). Freakwater freaks may be surprised at how un-hillbilly the tunes here are; they hail more from 1970s California than from Appalachia. If Emmylou Harris had been more influenced by Joni Mitchell than by Gram Parsons, and had friends into the sleepy side of free jazz, she might have made records something like this.
B) Whiskeytown, who picked up the alt-country torch after Tupelo disintegrated, then splintered pretty messily itself, is represented on Slaughter by Ryan Adams. Ryan's unsung ex-partner, Caitlin Cary, has a new album called I'm Staying Out (Yep Roc). Neither artist has quite lived up to their former band yet, but I don't care how big Adams is right now: If you locked me in a room and made me choose between listening to all his solo records nonstop or all of Cary's, I'd choose hers every time. There's some stuff here that's a little too Adult Alternative for my taste, but tracks like "Cello Girl" and "Lorraine Today" smell strongly of what made Whiskeytown so compelling.
Nina Simone, who died last week at the age of 70, possessed one of the world's great larger-than-life voices and a fiercely confrontational personality to match it. So outraged at American racism that she lived her last few decades on foreign soil, so insulted by constrictive marketing labels that she preferred flirting with many genres to being a superstar in one, she channeled that emotional range into an impressive body of work. The uninitiated are well served by Bittersweet: The Very Best of Nina Simone, a single-disc retrospective and apparently the only one (among scores of hits collections) that draws from every period of her career. Slap it on the stereo and toast one of the great blues/jazz/lounge/gospel singers ever. •