A lot of piss-and-vinegar bands got noticed after Nirvana (the ultimate piss-and-vinegar band) blew up with Nevermind. It’s a well-known fact — one we’ve mentioned several times at QtP — but it bears repeating here. Because Uncle Tupelo wasn’t one of them. The bands that came in on a wave of label dough, while the labels scrambled to find the next Cobain writing the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” all sounded mad. They thrashed and yelled and yarbled and crashed. They were all flannel and distortion, ready to blow your ears out with anti-hair-band vitriol. They were rock music.
So they’d have you believe anyway. Uncle Tupelo was another beast entirely. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy fronted a band that had been around since the late ’80s, and had put out their seminal, influential debut, No Depression, in 1990. That album showed us a band as powerful as any rock band the labels caught in their crosshairs post-Nevermind but with a country twang and true sense of tradition. Their second record, the slightly less twangy but far more textured Still Feel Gone, followed in 1991 (one week before Nevermind, actually). Both records were well received, and Uncle Tupelo was exactly the kind of fringe band that the labels might have taken a shot at.
Except they didn’t, because they didn’t sound enough like Nirvana. If this pissed Uncle Tupelo off, it wasn’t because they weren’t invited to the party, it was because the guest list was bullshit. They knew, like so many bands that avoided major-label deals — Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, etc. — that there was no next Nirvana, that the search was fruitless, that the bubble would burst, and that this said more about the fearful dealings of major labels than the strength of rock music in America.
So while most bands got louder to show their angst, Uncle Tupelo turned their back on the whole thing for 1992’s March 16-20, 1992. The album is basically an entirely acoustic record, mixing covers with the band’s original tunes. It’s an ode to tradition — many of the songs are old, established folk songs — and also a line in the sand. You can be another flash in the pan, they seemed to be saying, or you could be a real band, one that understands where music — and not music commerce — came from.
Opener “Grindstone” seems to fit into this idea well. It’s about working-class troubles, of course, the cogs ground down by the machine they spin for, but it echoes the sentiment of the band working not to cash in, but to achieve a true following. It’s interesting to note that the band was having issues with their label, Rockville, at the time over unpaid royalties from the first two records, so for this record Uncle Tupelo struck out (partially) on their own. The band recorded the album with R.E.M’s Peter Buck, who let the guys stay with him to cut costs, and Uncle Tupelo used a meager advance from the label to their advantage.
Staying with Buck, perhaps, or the easing of budget that provided, makes for a record that feels loose but never sloppy. Tweedy’s quick-picking gems like “Wait Up” or “Black Eye” may be maudlin, but there’s a front-porch immediacy and zeal to them. Meanwhile, Farrar is at his most painfully honest and soulful on the ringing acoustics of “Criminals” or “Shaky Ground.” The songs feel more powerful for the lack of electric instruments, bigger for not taking up all the air around them. You can feel the space of the studio around them, and in some ways this makes the collection feel more like a performance than an album proper.
For an album that bucks the widespread trend of its time, there’s a particular set of songs that seem most fascinating. Songs like “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and “Warfare” are old, Christian-themed songs that reflect a deeply fearful version of faith. “We’re gonna shout until they tear your kingdom down,” Tweedy bleats on “Satan,” recognizing both a power in fighting off the darkness and an impossible-to-ignore fear of same. There’s a real connection between this antiquated, fearful view and the labels clamoring to find new rock bands. For all the power and money they threw around, they were (and are) deeply afraid of us, the listener, and by and large know very little about us beyond surface demographic analysis. In between them and us are bands, most of whom get used or dismissed in the wave of trends. Uncle Tupelo was smart, or confident, or just plain contrarian enough to recognize this. They could have tried to take that kingdom down, but really what did they have to fear? They didn’t need it.
March 16-20, 1992 proved that. It sold more copies than their first two albums combined. It was the culmination of the band’s hard work, and their last as the original line-up — drummer Mike Heidorn left the band after recording. While everyone else turned up, Uncle Tupelo turned around and saw the past, saw the artists and songs and sounds the group loved and brought them into the present, achieving all the power of a rock band without the amperage. This sounds like a folk record, front to back, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t slay, that it can’t snarl at us. Even the title, in all its basic glory, is oddly confrontational. It documents a time, an event, a happening. That’s it. You can’t put a label on this collection as a whole, you can’t shine it up to be something it’s not. There’s no smooth marketing for this title. So even though it sounds like a folk record, I’d argue it’s not. It’s the sound of musicians who played together in a studio for four days. That’s all. And that’s more than enough. For all those shouting bands that cashed in and faded fast, we had an antidote in Uncle Tupelo: a band that whispered, angry and beautiful, and yet rang out all the louder for it.