January of 2014 brought the re-release of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, repackaged as a “Legacy Edition” by Sony. Anytime I see an older album repurposed by a record label, I always wonder if it’s worth it. Sure, die-hards will enjoy extra tracks and some beefed-up liner notes, but if you’re going to include it as part of something called the “Legacy Edition,” the legacy of the band and album should be clear—and, for one obvious legacy, visit No Depression, the magazine of roots/Americana music named after the album. So what is Uncle Tupelo’s legacy in music today?
Without this band, there might be no XM Outlaw Country—a channel popular enough even Peyton Manning gave it a plug—and the landscape of modern country music would likely be even more populated by cookie cutter products like Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. On one level, I suppose this is good for the genre; it’s reached mass appeal. However, it also seems to have been watered-down from what it once was.
Country music is no longer simply an American cultural expression; it is now a phenomenon of worldwide appeal. Nevertheless, it defies precise definition, and no term (not even ‘country’) has ever successfully encapsulated its essence. It is a vigorous hybrid form of music, constantly changing and growing in complexity, just as the society in which it thrives also matures and evolves. It was introduced to the world as a southern phenomenon, and in the sixty years or more since it was first commercialized it has preserved, to a remarkable degree, the marks of that origin. The music is nonetheless older than the South itself, and the massive commercialization it has undergone is merely a facet of that larger technological and communications revolution which has so radically transformed American popular tastes and steadily worked to pull the rural, socially conservative South into the homogenizing mainstream of American life. (1)
In this context, it’s no surprise that Uncle Tupelo, which hailed for an Illinois suburb of St. Louis, sought to blend punk, rock, and hippie culture with traditional country music. Though country was traditionally the embodiment of a working-class ideal, the 1980’s saw the genre become increasingly slick in production and sound. Many bands strayed away from the relatable laments of the traditional Southern life. Uncle Tupelo kept the blue-collar roots and added in the political and social outrage that often drove the punk movement. The album’s first track, “Graveyard Shift,” makes no qualms about the blunt, in-your-face ethos much of the album embraces.
Well, time won’t wait, better open the gate
Get up and start what needs to be done
It’s running down, there’s much you missed
Working on that graveyard shift
But I’m not saying there’s nothing wrong as the day comes along
If what I see is true I could learn to believe
Can’t look away
The powers that be might take it all away
Together we burn, together we burn away
The band no doubt understood that blue-collar life better than most. Many of them came from working-class backgrounds, watched family members struggle in dead-end jobs, and had seen the once strong Midwestern factory-scape fade into Rust Belt decay. And while the economic despair of the area continues, alt country has begun to fade. Perhaps nobody sums up the legacy of Uncle Tupelo better than Amanda Petrusich. In her review of the latest edition of No Depression for Pitchfork, she writes:
[I]n the two decades since they parted, reimagining Americana has become its own cottage industry, a fury of wool vests and reconditioned banjos and oiled beards. Alt-country doesn’t mean much anymore because country doesn’t mean much anymore; genre feels like a relic of the record store era, back when hand-labeled plastic dividers still parsed sound into neat categories.
It’s challenging, then, to appreciate the boldness of No Depression, the extent to which the members of Uncle Tupelo insisted on interdependency, on an American story. We don’t have to do that anymore—folks don’t self-identify in the same way, and hardly anyone loves just one genre monogamously—but there’s still something furious and prideful here, something worth hearing.
Music that has a point of view? That’s about something? That wears anger on its sleeve? That’s more than I can say about most mainstream country today.