Three records that many see as foundational to the current altcountry boom, the once hard-to-find early albums of a Midwestern band known as Uncle Tupelo are now available for fans to re-examine, each complete with bonus tracks that reveal its brilliance and exuberance, warts and all. Uncle Tupelo hailed from the Illinois suburbs just outside of St. Louis and featured the twin talents of songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, who -- after an acrimonious split in 1994 -- went on to form the rival groups Son Volt and Wilco, which offered diverse visions of how to meld indie rock and traditional country. In their formative years, Tweedy and Farrar clearly paid allegiance to the indie rock camp; the first two Uncle Tupelo releases showcase various styles of the early '90s, mixing sludgy, wailing grunge with emotive, R.E.M.-ish post-punk and even a hint of ear-crushing grindcore. What made the band different was its dash of old-fashioned hillbilly music, a well-timed double-dog-dare to its Southern and Midwestern fan base, rockers who'd been raised to view country music as redneck crap that any self-respecting hipster wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.
It wasn't until its third album, the all-acoustic March 16-20, 1992, that the act fully embraced the altcountry label tagged onto its earlier work. March is the most cohesive and melodic of Uncle Tupelo's first efforts, and also the record on which the band's shortcomings and daring aspirations became most apparent. By the time the group went fissile, it had spawned a legion of die-hard devotees, including the founders of No Depression magazine -- the self-proclaimed voice of the burgeoning altcountry scene -- which took its name from the title of Uncle Tupelo's first record (originally an old Carter Family song). As a country band, Uncle Tupelo's legacy is mixed, but as an indie group that opened ears previously resistant to mountain sounds, it casts a long, lanky shadow. Now admirers and skeptics can take stock of its full catalog, sizing up these unlikely and often surprising avatars of the hipster-hick revolution.