Although it’s recorded four critically acclaimed albums since 1990 and has seen more of the United States than most veteran truckers, the Midwest band Uncle Tupelo remains a newcomer to national TV exposure.
So when Uncle Tupelo appeared on a recent show of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” the group was justifiably uneasy. But one peek at the inexperienced host put things in perspective.
“He seems like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” says Uncle Tupelo’s Jeff Tweedy, speaking by phone from Chicago.
“If we felt like we were in over our heads, all we had to do was look over at Conan. During rehearsals, he would grimace like his brain would pop out of his head. Everyone acted like it was completely normal.”
Uncle Tupelo, meanwhile, continues to take its success in stride – although its brand of country rock (with flavorings of everyone from Jimmie Dale Gilmore to Husker Du) isn’t likely to burn up the record charts.
Formed by Tweedy and Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo developed in the duo’s hometown of Belleville, Ill., a blue-collar city 30 miles from St. Louis.
The band’s debut album, “No Depression,” earned a four-star review from Rolling Stone magazine.
Later albums – “Still Feel Gone,” “March 16-20, 1992” (produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck) and its most recent release “Anodyne” – watched the band evolve from a rollicking outfit to one that likes to take a deep breath during each number.
“I can see how it seems like a total about-face,” says Tweedy, 26. “But we feel like we’ve been doing the same thing all along. Even before we recorded `No Depression,’ we had tried out pedal steel players for the band and we had been doing acoustic shows.”
Uncle Tupelo will be a five-piece band for its Madison appearance Saturday, and Tweedy promises an informal atmosphere with “a lot of instrument switching.”
Tweedy also feels confident about the band’s future. It signed a two-record deal with a major label (Sire) before recording “Anodyne.”
“They have a pretty good track record of sticking with groups that aren’t necessarily commercial successes,” Tweedy says of Sire, then adds with a laugh, “I mean, (veteran cult fave) Throwing Muses made five records with them.”