This morning I cued up some Uncle Tupelo on my iPod while I rode the subway to work, and became surprisingly emotional. Listening to this quintessentially Midwestern band reminded me of the place where I grew up, a land I have seen very little of in the last four years. Sure, I am very happy here in New Jersey, but I lived the first thirty-two years of my life in the Midwest, and will never be able to get it out of my system. Here are some Midwestern songs by Midwestern artists that give me memories of home, and not always the happy variety.
Uncle Tupelo is most remembered these days for being Jeff Tweedy's band before Wilco, which is a shame considering their spot-on evocation of disaffected life in the rural Midwest. This song in particular strikes a deep chord with me, since I grew up in the kind of "three hour away town" described in this song. (This means being three hours away from the nearest sizable city.) I am not keen on going back there for more than a visit, but having to learn make my own fun and learn how to be alone with myself has made me a stronger person.
There aren't many songs that hit the charts in the 1980s that bring tears to my eyes, but this is one of them. Having grown up in Nebraska amidst the farm crisis of the Reagan, I know the reality behind the "blood on the plough." Three decades later, the towns my parents grew up in are all but dead and the small farm economy that supported those places is gone forever. As Mellencamp says in this song, "I'm sorry for you son, those are just memories for you now." Too bad people there keep voting for the same people who helped destroy their way of life.
If anything makes me feel guilty about living so far away from home, it's that I hardly ever get to see my ninety-year old grandmother. This song about an old Midwestern couple isolated from their family rips my heart out every time. The people living in the dying small towns of my home state find themselves increasingly alone, since these places offer nothing for young people, who must seek their opportunities elsewhere.
I'll close things out with a song that I think is one the most sublime ever written. Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco after Uncle Tupelo, a band that achieved godlike status in the halls of hipsterdom. Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo's primary song writer, helmed Son Volt, whose first album, Trace, is a real masterpiece. The St. Genevieve of this song is not a holy person, but a town on the Mississippi River trying to stave off the massive flood of 1993. The plain-spoken resilience tempered with fatalism expressed by this song is to me one of the great attributes of the Midwest, and one I am proud to keep alive amidst the neurotic, high strung nature of life in the Big Apple.