By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

April 13, 2003

Never compromise. Stay true.

Those lyrics from "Stay True," a previously unreleased bonus track on the CD reissue of Uncle Tupelo's "Anodyne," is a banner any band - or any person, for that matter - would be proud to carry.

And Belleville's Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn did just that. Did St. Louis music fans know what they had when the band was playing its incendiary blend of punk and country at the old Cicero's? If the answer is no, don't feel bad; few people did, probably including Uncle Tupelo.

It's been nine years since Uncle Tupelo broke up. Farrar founded Son Volt with drummer Heidorn, and Tweedy took the rest of the "Anodyne" lineup into Wilco. And now, Uncle Tupelo gets the music-biz equivalent of the royal treatment: a full catalog reissue campaign spanning two labels, complete with bonus tracks.

In the long run, Uncle Tupelo's parts may turn out to be greater than the whole, but that hardly matters. A magazine adopted the name of the band's first album, "No Depression," and tried to apply it to an entire style of music. It also hardly matters that the genre existed long before Uncle Tupelo, and continues in good health.

No Depression sounded sexier than alternative country or roots rock, but it didn't really explain anything; and that probably makes the songwriters in Farrar and Tweedy smile. Their music was instantly accessible, ranging from crashing, punk-fueled power chords to more delicate, acoustic, back-porch sounds. But their sometimes vague, usually poetic lyrics often raced ahead of or lagged behind the beginnings and ends of measures, a test for a casual listener.

They wrote and sang about what they knew - growing up in the Midwest - and they addressed it with equal parts respect and rebellion. They railed against pollution, complacency, loss of hope, the music business, Reagan-Bush economics, atomic power and business suits - and wrote some of the loveliest melodies never to adorn an actual love song.

Columbia/Legacy has just released the first three Uncle Tupelo albums that originally appeared on Rockville Records. The fourth, "Anodyne," was reissued last month by Rhino Records. It originally appeared on Sire.

With "No Depression" (1990), Uncle Tupelo makes a statement with the first notes of the first track of their first album. "Graveyard Shift" begins with some simple electric-guitar picking, then slams into punk speed. It says just about everything this band wants to say: "Hometown, the same town blues/Same old walls closing in/Some say land of paradi se/Some say land of pain/Well, which side are you looking from?/Some people have it all/And some have it all to gain."

The title track, "No Depression," is a Carter Family classic about the Great Depression ("I'm going where there's no Depression"). Although future albums will contain more acoustic and traditional music, this track and "Graveyard Shift" represent the two sides of Tupelo's influences. Their music veers from punk intensity to country sweetness, often within the same song.

Key tracks from "No Depression" include "Factory Belt," "Screen Door" and "Whiskey Bottle," with its killer lines: "I can't forget the sound, 'cause it's here to stay/The sound of people chasing money and money getting away."

Among the bonus cuts are "Left in the Dark," a Vertebrats garage rocker with a guitar sound that recalls another genre classic, "Why Do I Cry" by the Remains; and "Won't Forget," a demo recorded between the band's first two albums that was used in the movie "A Matter of Degrees."

The standout bonus track is "Sin City." No Depression, alt-country or country rock - call it whatever you want - this is it, written by post-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman for their Flying Burrito Brothers. Farrar says in the liner notes: "The mixture of Southern gospel and L.A. hipster apocalyptic lyrics left a big impression. We started singing 'Sin City' from the early stages of U.T. It was like 'How to Harmonize 101.'"

The track was first issued on a 1990 single, the B-side to "I Got Drunk," which appears on the "Anthology" CD.

"Still Feel Gone" (1991), the middle of the three Rockville albums, boasts all original compositions, democratically credited to all three bandmates with Farrar and Tweedy sharing vocals.

It, too, opens with arguably its best track, "Gun" ("'cause my heart, it was a gun/but it's unloaded now"). The staccato attack of "Gun" is followed by "Looking for a Way Out," with the band sounding like sons of Neil Young.

The acoustic "Still Be Around" features Farrar's older-than-his-years vocal and affecting lyrics: "When the bible is a bottle/And the hardwood floor is home/When morning comes twice a day or not at all/will you still be around?"

The album continues to mix the punk and country sides of the band, veering from a eulogy to Minuteman "D. Boon" to the strumming of "Cold Shoulder" and, often, a mixture of both (banjo picking behind the electric guitars on "Discarded").

Bonus tracks include "Sauget Wind," a 1992 single that takes on air pollution; Robyn Hitchcock and the Soft Boys' "I Wanna Destroy You," the B-side of the "Gun" single; and three demos, highlighted by a fast acoustic take of "Looking for a Way Out."

"March 16-20, 1992" - album No. 3 - refers to a week in 1992 during which R.E.M.'s Peter Buck invited the band to Georgia. The result was a mainly acoustic mix of originals and old folk songs, recorded live to tape with pedal-steel and banjo player John Keane and future Bottle Rockets guitarist Brian Henneman sitting in.

The major feat of this album is the seamless blending of originals such as "Grindstone" with songs such "Coalminers," a 1930s-era field recording.

The material is populist, political and propulsive, from the original "Criminals" ("They want us kinder and gentler at their feet") and "Shaky Ground" ("His life had become to him/worthless in many ways/An expired product off the shelf/His name was a number") to the Louvin Brothers' "Atomic Power" ("Will you shout or will you cry/When the fire rains from on high?/Are you ready for that great atomic power?").

Bonus tracks include live and demo versions of album cuts - and a hidden track of the theme to "The Waltons" TV show, of all things.

The recording lessons learned on "March" carried over to the final Tupelo effort, the major-label "Anodyne," for which the band plugged in but again recorded live with no overdubs. Heidorn had departed, and the lineup was filled out with players who, with Tweedy, would become Wilco.

Unlike a lot of major-label debuts that sink beneath the weight of expectation and compromise, "Anodyne" is a swan song for rock ages. All of the band's influences and experience come into play, musically (electric and acoustic) and lyrically (resigned and hopeful).

Humor peeks through as well, in "New Madrid," an account of the earthquake fault scare; and anger, in "We've Been Had," a slap at the music business. Another standout is a cover of Doug Sahm's "Give Back the Key to My Heart," with the Cosmic Cowboy himself sharing the vocals.

The "Anodyne" bonus tracks are the icing on this CD. Session outtakes include "Stay True," "Wherever" and Waylon Jennings' great anti-Music Row anthem, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" with Joe Ely singing lead.

The expanded "Anodyne" closes with U.T. live, at the top of its game, ripping through the country staple "Truck Driving Man" and the Dale Hawkins/Creedence Clearwater Revival raver "Suzy Q," both with Henneman blazing on guitar.

Leave 'em wanting more, the old vaudeville slogan goes. In this case, the more was Son Volt and Wilco. Not a bad deal.