but this type of music has found an extremely devoted following that eschews picking favorites in lieu of supporting nearly any artist that fits the loose definition. Comfortably perched beneath the No Depression umbrella are veteran trailblazers like Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Johnny Cash, as well as newcomers like Gillian Welch, Richard Buckner, the Bottle Rockets, and Blue Mountain.
While the movement's roots reach back to Parsons and, ultimately, to the country-and-western pioneers of the '30s and '40s, No Depression music takes its name from the 1990 debut album of Uncle Tupelo. Growing up in Belleville, Ill., Uncle Tupelo founders Jay Farrar (guitar), Jeff Tweedy (bass), and Mike Heidorn (drums) never imagined they would someday be given credit for rekindling interest in country-rock. The three, along with Farrar's brother Wade (who did most of the singing), played in a garage band called the Primitives in the mid-'80s. In 1987, Wade left, Farrar and Tweedy split the vocal duties, and the band changed its name to Uncle Tupelo. (Tweedy has said that they simply picked the two words at random, though legend suggests that a friend of the band had a painting of Elvis Presley in a bathrobe titled "Uncle Tupelo.")
As songwriters, Farrar and Tweedy proved prolific. Uncle Tupelo circulated a series of demo tapes over a two-year period with titles like Colorblind and Rhymeless, Live and Otherwise, and Not Forever, Just for Now. They built a significant following in the Midwest, particularly in St. Louis, Mo., and by 1990, Uncle Tupelo had secured a contract with indie label Rockville Records. The result was No Depression, a collection of hard-driving songs with titles that evoked equally hard living: "Graveyard Shift," "Factory Belt," and "Train." The sound was straightforward, the songs built on furious tempos that stopped on a dime. Even when the band invoked the relative quiet of acoustic guitar, banjo, or pedal steel (as on the title track, a cover of the Carter Family song, or on "Whiskey Bottle") the sentiment was unmistakably gritty and resigned. Uncle Tupelo was voted the best unsigned band at 1990's New Music Seminar in New York City.
The band's second album, Still Feel Gone (1991), refined the Uncle Tupelo sound and demonstrated a growing musical range with first-rate songs and a scorching performance from start to finish. While Farrar and Tweedy wrote separately, their styles complemented each other: Farrar's moving "Still Be Around," an earnest distillation of friendship, was followed cleverly by Tweedy's passive-aggressive "Watch Me Fall." Road-weary and punch-drunk, Uncle Tupelo threw a curve with its third album, March 16-20, 1992. Produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, it was a largely acoustic affair, but no less spirited than its predecessors. March is a story-telling record, dotted with historic snapshots ("Lilli Schull"), and so rich in detail that its lone instrumental, "Sandusky," is as evocative as anything else on the record. Shortly after the completion of the album, Mike Heidorn left Uncle Tupelo to spend more time with his family, and was replaced first by Bill Belzer and then by Ken Coomer. Multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston also came aboard, adding fiddle, dobro, and mandolin to the mix.
Uncle Tupelo landed a major-label contract with Reprise, and entered an Austin, Texas, studio in May of 1993 to record its fourth album with producer Brian Paulson. Joining the band for the sessions and subsequent tour was bassist and rhythm guitarist John Stirrat, whose presence allowed Tweedy to alternate between bass and guitar. The Reprise debut, Anodyne, was a critical breakthrough, but would be Uncle Tupelo's last album. Although Farrar and Tweedy contributed songs that differed in substance, style, and approach, the broad strokes gelled, and the album contained several songs each writer still performs today, including Farrar's "Chickamauga" and Tweedy's "The Long Cut." The band toured heavily in support of Anodyne, but for reasons that have never been fully articulated, Jay Farrar decided to leave Uncle Tupelo in late 1993 or early 1994. The band embarked on one last tour, which concluded on May 1, 1994, the last night of a four-show run in St. Louis.
Jeff Tweedy, understandably shell-shocked by the sudden disintegration of Uncle Tupelo, proved resilient. He enlisted Coomer, Johnston, and Stirrat to form a new band, Wilco, and quickly began work on a fresh batch of songs. The result, A.M., was released by Reprise in the spring of 1995. Solid and resolute, A.M. found Tweedy in a playful, pop-rock mode, as country nuances and hooks became exceptions, not rules. Wilco, with new guitarist Jay Bennett, embarked on a rigorous tour that included a spot in that summer's H.O.R.D.E. Festival.
Before forming his new band, Jay Farrar moved temporarily to New Orleans and took some time off. When he re-emerged with a number of new songs, he enticed original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn out of retirement, and hooked up with Minneapolis-based musicians and brothers Jim (bass) and Dave Boquist (guitar, fiddle, banjo). By the end of 1994, Farrar's new band, dubbed Son Volt, had finished an album that was released the following September. Trace stayed truer to Uncle Tupelo than Wilco's A.M. had, but provided few answers as to why Farrar had left his former band, though the album did touch on themes of independence ("Live Free") and the need to move on ("Windfall" and "Route"). Son Volt toured for more than a year in support of Trace, making a few high-profile television appearances along the way on programs like Austin City Limits, VH1 Crossroads, and Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
Critics had largely adored Trace, so it was somewhat surprising when a few of those same writers gave a lukewarm reception to Son Volt's second album, Straightaways, released in April of 1997. The band's crime, wrote a few critics, was delivering more of the same. While Straightaways was undeniably an extension of Trace, Farrar felt the second album was a stronger reflection of his band, which by then had months of touring under its belt, experience playing together which had been absent from the Trace recording sessions. Then again, perhaps it was the darker nature of Straightaways that left critics on the outside looking in, unwillingor unableto absorb Farrar's increasingly cryptic lyrics. The songwriter's low press profile didn't help eitherthe taciturn Farrar earned a reputation for his single-sentence interview responses.
That isn't to say the band was struggling to maintain its large base of support within the press and the alt-country community. Even if Straightaways was viewed as a step to the side by some, Son Volt remained the genre's favorite sons along with Wilco. Farrar and company spent much of 1997 on the road, including a trip to the U.K. in November. After the holidays, work commenced on the band's third album. Recorded at Son Volt's own recording studio (dubbed Jajouka and housed in an old lingerie factory in the small town of Millstadt, Ill., on the outskirts of St. Louis), Wide Swing Tremolo stands apart from previous albums, especially in terms of production. Without the pressure of a studio deadline, the band spent extra time experimenting with arrangements and instrumentation, yielding a sonically adventurous album that shows musical growth without departing from Son Volt's signature style. The band plans to tour extensively in the U.S. and Europe in late 1998 and early 1999.