Almanac Music: Not Quite Bob – Americana Part 1: Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco, The Jayhawks, Golden Smog


With the 2024 AmericanaFest about to take place in Nashville later this month, it is an appropriate time to reprise Trevor Bailey’s exploration of Americana music from his ‘Not Quite Bob’ series.



Not Quite Bob – Americana Part 1 – Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco, The Jayhawks, Golden Smog


A big topic this.  I’ve seen a ranked list of 150 artists that fit the brief.  Which is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are emerged from the Southern United States such as folkgospelbluescountryjazzrhythm and bluesrock and rollbluegrass, and other external influences. Straight from Wiki and a mouthful but you get it I’m sure.


If I was going to start anywhere it would, should, be with The Band.  But I’m saving them up for a later edition as they are the quintessential NQB artist.  And need their own piece.


And I could make the point that the antecedents of this musical genre, this style pre-Bob, pre-The Band are to be found in the songs of Woody Guthrie and Conway Twitty and Hank Williams and The Carter Family.  To get a feel for that you should watch Ken Burns’ excellent series called Country Music which brilliantly covers all those artists and takes the conversation up to Bob and Johnny Cash and a bit beyond.





As an aside Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War and the Vietnam War are also beyond comparison and he’s also made about 20 others including on Jazz, Jackie Robinson, Baseball, Roosevelt, Muhammed Ali amongst many.


Over the next two pieces I’m looking at some artists that I think best illustrate what’s come to be known as Americana.






Uncle Tupelo


While the term country rock is attributed to Gram Parsons, alt-country is laid at the feet of a band called Uncle Tupelo formed in 1987 by Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn in Belleville, Illinois.  In it’s early stages they played a combination of hard core punk and the traditional country sounds of the Carter Family and Hank Williams thus alt(ernative)-country.


From their first album No Depression the title track.






A pretty obvious Bob nod.  But on the very next track ‘Factory Belt’ you get alt-country in a nutshell.





They burn fierce and fast but by 1994 they’re finished in the familiar cloud of acrimony when original member in Jay Farrar clashes with Jeff Tweedy about who’s the boss, fights on stage, the whole bit.  Boys, boys, boys.  They do however leave behind 4 albums that range from good to great and later in 2002 a terrific comp called 89/93: An Anthology.  I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of Best Ofs but this is a really good one.








Son Volt


When Uncle Tupelo breaks up Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn form Son Volt.  More country than alt, its clear where their inclinations lay.  From their debut Trace, we have a fan favorite in ‘Windfall’.






And from 2009’s American Central Dust, ‘Jukebox of Steel’.




Good not great but plenty of good songs, persistent, consistent, they prevail and are still recording and performing today.  Most of the original members intact (a rarity) here they are live on ‘Tear Stained Eye’.





Their most recent album from 2021 called Electro Melodier can be auditioned here.










As Jay Farrar is forming Son Volt, Jeff Tweedy sets up Wilco with Uncle Tupelo Bass player John Stiratt and other alt country luminaries.  They become in short order the Americana cornerstone (if indeed any single artist could be labelled that way) and produce a series of stunning albums that identify and define the form.  The first 5 (6 maybe) are classics with my favorite being 1999’s Summerteeth.  Here.





But right from the get go on 1995’s A.M. the strength of Tweedy’s songs was evident.  Here with ‘Casino Queen’.






Along the way they hook up with Billy Bragg and produce recordings of hitherto incomplete Woody Guthrie songs called Mermaid Avenue in 1998 and Vol. 2 in 2000.  As the story goes Woody’s daughter Nora contacted Bragg asking him to write music for some of over 1000 songs he’d left behind in lyric form only.  The resulting albums he did with Wilco are an Americana landmark.  Extraordinary really with many great songs as a result.


Here they are with one of the highlights from the first album, ‘California Stars’.





Probably better versions elsewhere on YouTube but this one has Billy on it which is a plus.  I’m guessing a lot of the readers have these albums and you’ll have your favorites.  One of mine is this quiet little song, mainly down to Billy, a not quite two minute wonder called ‘Ingrid Bergman’.




Anyway, meanwhile …


Wilco (and Jeff Tweedy solo and with his son Spencer in a band imaginatively called Tweedy) have kept recording and performing until the present day but sadly the albums past 2007’s Sky Blue Sky are less compelling although they all have their moments.


Like a lot of the other NQB artists featured here they are well and truly present on YouTube with full gigs aplenty.  A format that suits a lot of these artists is the Tiny Desk concerts.  Here they are in 2011.









The Jayhawks


Because I want to complete the circle back to Uncle Tupelo (and because they’re really good) I want to include The Jayhawks in this piece.  Contemporaries of Uncle Tupelo they’re started in 1984 by Gary Louris and Mark Olson both from Minneapolis, Minnesota.  As with Son Volt they’re more in the melodic vein of country than either Uncle Tupelo or Wilco.  Their history spans most of the time from 1984 until now with some breaks and they’ve recorded 11 albums, all good, some great.  Pushed for a choice I think the highlight is Sound Of Lies from 1997.





But Tomorrow The Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall are really good too.  From the first of those in 1995 we have one of their signature songs in ‘Blue’





Still in good nick in 2016 here they are in a similar vein to the Tiny Desk stuff.





Sweeter voices and harmonies than the others, music for relaxing and reading to.






Golden Smog


To square the circle (???) we get to an alt-country Americana supergroup called Golden Smog.  More an occasional project than a band they feature members of Wilco, The Replacements, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and Big Star, never all at the same time but they’ve been going since 1989.  Only a few albums, the first two of which are Down By The Old Mainstream (1995) and Weird Tales (1998). 



 For reasons not entirely clear to me I want to finish this Americana instalment with this performance from Golden Smogger in Jeff Tweedy and Gary Louris  from The Jayhawks of ‘Pecan Pie’ from the first GS album.






I think I like the joyousness, the homespun simplicity of it as much as anything.  Joy not being a feature, it has to be said, of the NQBs.  In this lot, much more of that.  Phew.


Part 2 next week.



You can read more from Trevor Blainey HERE.



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  1. Love me some Jayhawks and Blue is probably their best!

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    You’ve excelled yourself TB! Some of my favourite bands, just love Wilco and The Jayhawks. I particularly like ‘Passenger Side’ off Wilco’s first album. Did see Wilco briefly at JazzFest a few years ago until a New Orleans thunderstorm with the works caused all venues to stop.I’m really looking forward to The Band episode.

  3. Rick Kane says

    This has been a most excellent series TB, and while I have not commented over the last few, I certainly have been reading them and mostly nodding in agreement.

    I find the names alt-country and Americana to be a bit silly. Country music as a genre is as wide and encompassing as you can get and while the bands noted in your article have all produced good to great songs and albums none of them have come close to being what is country music at its best. Of any era.

    You are right about Summerteeth, it’s a cracker. At their peak Wilco were terrific, but it would be hard to call albums following Summerteeth alt-country. From YHF onwards they went in a whole other direction (and good on them) but Tweedy started to fall out of love with his big strength, melodies.

    I love The Jayhawks, they just keep on delivering. An aside worth noting is their role on Joe Henry’s terrific album, Kindness of the World.


    Oh, I thought the Ken Burns Country Music doco was one of his lesser efforts.

  4. Patrick O’Brien says

    Sometimes I wish Wilco would make up their mind if they want to play songs or be a jam band. Sometimes I like that they can’t decide. The rest of the time I just cut to the chase and chuck on the Alllman Brothers.

  5. Karl Dubravs says

    Excellent ‘connecting the dots’ Trevor. Enjoyed this article immensely. Cheers, Karl

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