Uncle Tupelo laid their burden down and sparked a new flame with thrash and twang; persuaded, paraded, inebriated and down in a land of paradise and a land of pain. The group had begun with Jay Farrar and his brothers Wade and Dade in Belleville, Illinois as The Plebes. After Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn joined they became The Primatives before taking the name Uncle Tupelo. They recorded a demo 'Not Forever, Just for Now' with producer Matt Allison in Champaign, Illinois, leading to a deal with Giant Records which would soon change its name to Rockville Records. They recorded their debut album 'No Depression' over ten days in January 1990 at Fort Apache South, a musician-run studio in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. The sessions featured Jay Farrar on vocals, guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and harmonica; Mike Heidorn on drums and cymbals; and Jeff Tweedy on vocals, acoustic guitar, and bass guitar; with Rich Gilbert adding pedal steel guitar; Paul Q. Kolderie on production, audio engineering, and sound effects; and Sean Slade on production, piano, engineering, and background vocals. J. Hamilton did the photography.
Heidorn considers: "The punk rock, the garage rock was definitely the common element that Jeff and Jay had. Jay’s family and his upbringing lent itself to the acoustic instruments by way of the Missouri Ozarks [his mother’s home], a very rural area southwest of Belleville. But his folks had banjos—I remember going there as a 14-year-old—fiddles, harmonicas, pianos, acoustic guitars galore. Jeff, his upbringing brought acoustic [instruments] to the family gatherings. I think he had some uncles who played country, so those two were in touch with the country. When they brought those acoustic guitars and harmonicas to band practice, that was really fascinating. It was like ‘Hell, we can do all these things!’"
Farrar says: "Belleville’s where we were growing up, getting our start, playing in bars. St. Louis has always represented the gateway to the rest of the world. We were late teens and early twenties around the time these recordings were made. Belleville was a relatively economically depressed area, and it was also a relatively small town. I think its population was around 40,000. There weren’t that many high-profile businesses in Belleville, but there was one, the Stag Beer Factory, which closed down during that time period—or shortly before. I think it was mid ‘80s. It’s interesting to see how pervasive the references to the small-town lifestyle are in these songs..There’s definitely a sense of place. Another thing that is remarkable to me is how intertwined the music and bar culture were. That’s where we played the music, was in bars, and so much of the lyrical content reflects that. The overriding aspect of the lyrics is that so many references to moving on—seeing the rest of the world outside of Belleville...We started writing songs when we were about twenty years old, and then you hit twenty-one and all of a sudden you’re exposed to a different world and a different culture. Bar culture. It’s both a problem and a solution, and it’s something our society is still trying to figure out...We tried to stake a musical claim that shaped the band, and we put everything we listened to in a blender and came up with music to call our own."
Tweedy confesses: “I thought I knew everything there was to know about alcoholism because I grew up in a house full of people who were alcoholics. My dad would be devastated to hear me say he’s an alcoholic, but the consensus would be that someone who drinks a 12-pack of beer every day is one. He’s a highly functioning alcoholic, he’s been able to maintain for a long time. My brothers, on the other hand, haven’t been able to and have suffered a lot. One of them is recovering and one of them is still very active in his addiction...Even at a very young age I knew that I was an alcoholic, before I ever took a drink. But when I quit drinking, I thought I was saved for the rest of my life – which isn’t how addiction works. I had to find something else, because I really only treated a symptom.”
All songs written by Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn except as indicated.
"Graveyard Shift" – 4:43
"That Year" (Farrar, Tweedy) – 2:59
"Before I Break" – 2:48
"No Depression" (A.P. Carter) – 2:20
"Factory Belt" – 3:13
"Whiskey Bottle" – 4:46
"Outdone" (Farrar, Tweedy) – 2:48
"Train" (Tweedy) – 3:19
"Life Worth Livin'" – 3:32
"Flatness" (Tweedy) – 2:58
"So Called Friend" (Farrar) – 3:12
"Screen Door" – 2:42
"John Hardy" (traditional, arr. Lead Belly) – 2:21
"Left in the Dark" (Draznik) – 3:09
"Won't Forget" – 2:51
"Sin City" (Parsons, Hillman) – 3:53
"Whiskey Bottle" (Live Acoustic) – 4:40
"No Depression" (1988 Demo) – 2:19
"Blues Die Hard" (1987 Demo) (A. P. Carter) – 4:08