The Classic Album Series is a five part series focusing on the most influential albums in the history of alt-country and americana. Each of the 30 minute episodes will explore the history, recording of and influence of some of the most seminal albums recorded. This episode looks at the recording of Uncle Tupelo No Depression.
It is fitting that in the week of the 27th anniversary of the release of the record I am writing this piece on No Depression. The album, released in 1990 on Rockville Records is just 41 minutes and 41 seconds long but it can be argued that it shaped american music and created a touch point for the emerging genre of alt-country.
The Story of Uncle Tupelo
Uncle Tupelo is framed around the relationship of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Jay and Jeff met in English class at Belleville (Illinois) West High School in 1981. Both were big fans of punk rock, something unique for that time and place. Jay, a guitar player,and his older brothers Dade, a bass player had a garage-rock band called the Plebes. Jeff Tweedy, a novice guitarist was invited to join mainly so the band could enter a battle of the bands which required a member to be of high-school age. However as Tweedy became more involved in the band and started arranging bookings for the band, his influence grew. He disapproved of the Plebes’ move toward a rockabilly sound which led to the departure of Dade from the band. At the same time, Mike Heidorn, another classmate of Jay and Jeff, joined the Plebes as their drummer. The band then changed its name to The Primitives, and began to show their puck influences by playing everything fast.
The Recording of No Depression
The recording of No Depression started in January 1990 with the band recording tracks for No Depression over ten days at Fort Apache South. This was a musician-run studio in Boston. The reason the band ended up there was purely one of cost. The band could not afford to record at nearly Cambridge studio which had a twenty-four track studio. The album was produced by the studio in-house producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie. Apart from the cheaper cost of recording at Fort Apache South, the band was interested in working with Slade and Kolderie who had worked on Dinosaur Jr.’s recent release “Bug”.
No Depression takes its name from the J.D. Vaughan song; “No Depression in Heaven”. This was a gospel track first made famous by the Carter Family in 1936 and then by the New Lost City Ramblers in 1959.
In an interview in the mid 1990’s Mike Heidorn shared how the use of country instruments found their way onto the album.
“I didn’t know many country songs and in my house we didn’t really hear much of that. I always gravitated toward the ’60s garage bands. But I think, really, the country thing just came out of Jay’s vocals. Jay’s seasoned voice. And we had these acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, a harmonica, and when they got combined with Jay’s voice… He and Jeff I think understood the Ozarks and rural Missouri a little more than me. They had family functions there with acoustic country sing-alongs. I just didn’t have that element. I just basically followed Jay and Jeff’s intuition. That’s the thing that makes the difference from all the records that came before: there wasn’t much country in the Ramones or the Lords of the New Church!”
Legacy of No Depression
It is hard to quantify the legacy of any album or release. How do you directly link one song on one album to one song on an album by another artist. One of the most defining influences of the album was the inspiration for the genre of alt-county. It created a new space where country instruments did not have to play country sounds.
The creation of the genre magazine that was named after the album in 1995, was perhaps one of it’s most direct influences. The No Depression magazine would go on to help shape the genre which started on those cold days in January 1990.
The two founding members of Uncle Tupelo would go on to form two bands in the genre, Wilco and Son Volt who both have created their own impact on the genre but as Pitchfork recently said No Depression is a significant record independent of its fallout.
Sources/ More Reading:
Wilco: Learning How to Die (book released in 2004 on the band)
http://www.covermesongs.com/2014/06/in-the-spotlight-uncle-tupelo.html – history of the band
http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/18940-uncle-tupelo-no-depression-legacy-edition/ – Pitchfork.com review of No Depression legacy edition