As far as I can tell, I am the oldest writer of this group. The advantage that holds is that I’m able to talk about shows and events that happened in the early to late 90s, that might have some historical significance (well, at least to me, let me not be overdramatic here) as long as I can remember the events. The 90s weren’t that long ago, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Although you obviously have no idea how much beer I’ve drank since those days.
I was introduced to Uncle Tupelo through a fellow musician named Brian Buhman in Ames, Iowa. Brian is currently living in Chicago and you might find him in any number of swing, country, rock, or otherwise bands prowling the taverns of America’s greatest city. I was really into the first Gear Daddies album, but Brian was more schooled in the history of Gram Parsons, the Birds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, which he considered more “echt” than the sounds the Gear Dads were bringing, so he loaned me the “No Depression” CD and told me that they would be playing at People’s Bar & Grill, there in Ames, the following week.
If you’ve heard the album, and you like it, you know that it was groundbreaking. I’m with Tweedy when I say they didn’t really invent the genre, they were just making good music, but the album DID have a really strong influence on alternative country, a genre that seems to have a lot of followers, but musicians and bands reluctant to be categorized as such.
Let’s just set the record straight: Def Leppard IS a hair band as much as they don’t wanna be, and if you play good, straight up country-influenced music (listen for the pedal steel guitar) and aren’t being played on modern (shit) country radio, you’re more than likely and alt-country band. Can you get over it and keep making great music? If AC/DC can be okay with their lot in life, you can, too.
I remember seeing Uncle Tupelo for the first time at People’s. Being in a band in Ames, People’s was always my favorite place to play. Tom, the owner, was a good guy, and I gave him a hard time about booking cover bands. But truthfully, he brought in a wide variety of bands, and had the best stage and sound system in town. The clientele varied depending on the band, but I think it, more than any other bar in town, was the bar where most of the Greek system boys and girls hung out.
Uncle Tupelo played there on the Thursday night the week before spring classes were going to start in January of ’91 (I think). People’s was having a special: quart jars of any mixed drink for $2. Sure it was well liquor, not the premium stuff, but you might as well call that the “Hungover Fer Sure” special.
I got a whiskey and coke and noticed that the band was playing pool. Buhman, James Stone (who played drums in a couple of bands with me) and I walked up and started talking to the guys, played pool with them, and I bummed Mike Heidorn’s Marlboro reds. Brian Henneman was with them. Brian has his own band, the Bottle Rockets.
I don’t remember too much about the show that night, but that’s what will happen when you drink three quarts of whiskey and coke. I know that afterwards, they needed a place to stay, and Buhman told them they could stay at his house. We helped them load out, they got a case of Leinenkugel’s from People’s Bar and Grill, and we got in their van and headed off to Perkins for some breakfast. I remember gibbering something over my hamburger that it would be so great if they could come back to Ames because mostly all we got were cover bands (I had a problem with cover bands back in college. As I look at it now, it was kind of silly, but mostly I was just jealous that people wanted to hear covers as opposed to coming to see my band(s) that played all original music).
After we ate at Perkins, we went to Buhman’s house and passed around an acoustic guitar. I was playing punk rock back then and didn’t really tool around much with the acoustic (this experience would change all that) so I started playing “Dust in the Wind.” As one of my most embarrassing life experiences, Jeff Tweedy said, “Dude, I think I’m all dusted in the winded out,” or something to that effect.
When I woke up the next morning, the band and Brian Henneman were gone, but they left us the untouched case of Leinenkugel’s.
I saw Uncle Tupelo again in Austin, Minnesota, where they played with 4 other bands at the Gear Daddies “last show” at the Austin County fairgrounds. House of Large Sizes, the Draghounds, and Run Westy Run were there as well. I don’t think there were any others. I drove from Wisconsin and met up with some friends who drove up from Ames. They had an interim drummer, as this was just after the release of “March 16 – 20, 1992” and did a good set. I didn’t talk to them, but I do remember talking to Run Westy Run. A couple of my friends who were in an Ames band called Funky Thermos and the Soular Grape Fruit Band (Funky Thermos for short) worked out a deal where they would open for the Westies on an upcoming Ames show they caught wind of.
The final time I saw Uncle Tupelo was after I got out of school in 1993. I drove down to Ames from Decorah, Iowa on a Friday to see them play at a small venue at Iowa State University called the M-Shop. Joe Henry and his band opened. They were great. Uncle Tupelo played an awesome show, as well. They came out with “Acuff Rose” and everyone went nuts. I remember them doing “Whiskey Bottle” as an encore, without the loud, crashing choruses (I later asked Ken Coomer why the toned down choruses, and he said it was “too heavy metal.” Whatever!) and Jay Farrar messed up the words, which will happen.
My friend, Shanda, was talking to Coomer and Stirrat after the show and invited them back to her place for an after-party. We stopped and got a case of cans on the way there. They showed up. Farrar was standing in a corner with a roadie nursing an Old Style. I think they were telling jokes to each other. Tweedy comes in and he heads straight for the sink and gets a water. I see this and look at Stirrat and ask, "Do some members of the band not drink?" He says, "Some of us don't," and takes a swig out of his bottle of Old Style.
This is where it gets good...or annoying if you're Jeff Tweedy. I start asking him questions about different lyrics of his songs. I can't be sure what I asked him now. After about the 3rd question, he asks, "Are you going to interview me all night?" I sort of crack a smile and two of my friends, Andy Strom and Eric "Smoke" Smith chime in with, "No, you gotta understand, we've been talking about this stuff for the longest time, and you're the guy who can answer it." Jeff sort of shrugs his shoulders and I think he's left alone for about five minutes.
I didn't talk to him or really anyone else for the rest of the "after-the-show" party. My friends practiced with their friends in that house, and I think they got at least 2 members of the band to jam with them until the neighbors upstairs called the cops. As we were leaving, the band was leaving, too, and Jeff apologized to me for being agitated. I just grinned and shook my head. I said, "It's okay, Jeff, I know how I am." He smiled and nodded. Not sure he expected that kind of response.
What's funny, however, is that in Golden Smog, a side project many musicians from about 3 other bands are involved in, including the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum, Tweedy wrote a song called, "I Can't Keep From Talking." When I interpret it for myself, it appears to be about annoying people like me, with the final verse being about his feelings for those who ask. You can get this off of iTunes, if you so care to.
When the Wilco book, “Learning How to Die” came out, it had a lot of information about the Uncle Tupelo years. It’s not like I was really involved with the band or anything, but they were around during such a short time, and as I read it, I felt I was “this close” to actually getting into the book.
I was in Bellingham, Washington in May 1994. I was there for Garage Shock, a 4-day festival of bands held in the 3B tavern. I was looking through a Rolling Stone magazine at a local record store when I read that Uncle Tupelo played their last show in St. Louis earlier that month. I was kind of bummed out, but knew there would be more coming from the guys in this band.