Open and thoughtfully verbose, Heidorn prefers to look back on what his band did, not on their place in history. This year saw the deluxe anniversary reissue of Uncle Tupelo's first album, "No Depression," so it seemed opportune to revisit that time, gone as it may be. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Listening to a 1985 recording of a rehearsal of the Primitives, which became Uncle Tupelo
I was trying to figure out what I'm going to talk about, and what really came to my mind was some of the things we did leading up to 1991. What did we do in the years leading up to that to be functional enough to be on stage? I had the good fortune of running into a cassette tape of the Primitives practicing.
So here's the list of the songs, with the years they were originally released. "Are You Going to Be There (At the Love-In)," 1967, by Chocolate Watch Band. Jay ... I couldn't believe Jay was singing about the love-in. "I Can't Explain" by The Who. "You Don't Stand an Outside Chance," written by Warren Zevon, a 1966 song by The Turtles. Jay would sing that.
Some of these songs were on the oldies station our parents listened to. Rolling Stones "Make Love to You," "Dirty Water." That's what we were doing, and I look at it as study hall for me in 1984 through 1986.
I was born in '67 and most of these songs are from '65, '66, '67. These songs were 20 years old at the time, laid down the same year as our birth, and we got ahold of them. This was the template to everything we played after that. Jay had a head start, playing these songs with his brothers, but we had the gusto and energy.
On growing up with music
The thing about music is I don't know if I would have mixed it up with Jeff and Jay without music as a conduit.
I did take one piano lesson before I got kicked out. I'd heard my brothers and sister play piano, and I thought I could do it. I did not like the lesson. She returned me to my parents and said, "Don't bring Mike back." In hindsight I was a hyperactive little thing. I think what it was was that I didn't want to learn what she was teaching, because I wanted to play like my Aunt Annie [a boogie-woogy piano player]. I wanted to get into a song, not a scale. I wasn't having any of that.
Meeting Jay and Jeff
My older sister Kelly was dating, fell in love, and is still married to Dade Farrar, Jay's older brother. I was an eighth grader, meeting Dade, who had already been instrumental in Jay's life. Kelly meeting Dade, and Dade coming over to our house in his leather jacket and Converse tennis shoes made an impact. Started going to high school and met Jay.
What was important was having connections with Dade, Kelly and Wade ... in the early '80s to hear these great bands that I ended up cutting my teeth on, you didn't have a lot of volumes of Internet encyclopedias to look at. You had to have older friends, or older brothers who went to college, that was really key. These were songs Dade and Wade had played with Jay as a 14-year-old on guitar. It was important that Jay had cut his teeth before I met him. We dove right in. We faked our way like we could play these songs. I listened to this tape recently and thought yeah, it's not bad.
Leaving the band
I met [former wife] Sandy right at the beginning of Uncle Tupelo, around '87. Sandy, her children and Uncle Tupelo had entered into my life at the same time. And I had a job here, near the fountain, for the News-Democrat and the Journal newspapers, for the health insurance. I was very fortunate to have my job, and vacation time accrued. I blew through my vacation time right away, especially in the summer of 1991 when we went east, and then way southwest. It was our first three-week tour.
I lost my mind in the middle of a set on a Monday night in Phoenix. I remember in the middle of a song called "Fall Down Easy," there was a breakdown on the drums, and maybe five people in attendance. Brian [Henneman] was on the side of the stage with a guitar when I got off stage. It was hilarious and sad. They all looked at me, and I said, "I don't know where I'm at." I remember thinking boy, this is what it's going to take to keep this thing alive and doing well, and these guys are good.
There was a huge tug in the home life from my soon-to-be wife. There was a huge amount of strife, and I'd be lying if I didn't say there was. That can permeate a band. And also, my own thinking was that this would hold back the band unit.
We had gotten done doing a lot of touring with "Still Feel Gone." Peter Buck, at the end of that, wanted to do a record and I said yeah.
I remember calling [manager] Tony [Margherita]. I lived with Jeff and Jay on 11th Street. This would have been in February . I told them that it was probably time for me to bow out, and that they could probably get somebody else. I was crying, I'm sure. Or trying not to.
Jay, the first thing he said was, "What? Don't you want to record with Peter Buck?" I said that I don't have to, but I said I would, but I don't think I could support the record.
Jeff said something. He was mad, but not saying, "Screw you." I don't remember what he said that day. We didn't communicate much anyway. We didn't sit around and rap about our feelings. We would not speak about music directions or anything.
We really didn't speak much between February and March 16. I left them alone. I might have heard some of the songs because Jeff was playing them in the living room before the recording. That's how we spoke to each other -- what's in your hand, whether you want to hear it and play it. I could hear these songs, and Jay's. I heard a version of "Grindstone" in solo form. Hearing those songs I knew that I wasn't going to be the one to hold them back, and I told them that.
Joining Son Volt
My wife was hobnobbing with Monica, Jay's wife. Monica told Sandy that Jay was auditioning drummers for a new group he was forming. I wasn't blowing through my vacation time and didn't have the money to go on vacation anyway, so I had time. I called Jay and I'll never forget the conversation. I said, "I hear you have something kicking and for what it's worth I have some vacation time," and he said, "Yeah, Mike. I was wondering what your state of mind was." That's what he said to me. "Well, I don't know about that, but I do have some vacation time. He said that yeah, we should do that, and we did.
Before [recording with Son Volt] I made a call to Jeff Tweedy, because I thought that if Jay and I were going to play again, I wanted to tell him so that he didn't read it or hear it anywhere else. I said, "You'll never guess who I'm playing with now." And he said, "Jay." And I go, "Yeah." He said, "Mike, I thought you didn't want to play anymore." That was the first thing he said. I said, "I know. I didn't. But if you would have called and needed a drummer I probably would have jumped in."
The Uncle Tupelo lawsuit against their first label
In 2001, Jeff and Jay -- Uncle Tupelo, Inc. -- went after the owner of Rockville Records to sue him for non-payment. I talked to Jeff during this time frame. He was at his dad's house and called me over. We were talking out on his dad's front porch.
The judge told [Rockville Records] to cease and dissist all sales of Uncle Tupelo albums, and any supply he had left he had to give to the lawyer, and the master tapes, he had to turn over to the lawyer. At that moment, Uncle Tupelo were free agents in the marketplace to do something with them.
When Jeff called me over to his folks' house and said "Mike, do you have any idea how many albums Uncle Tupelo sold the first time?" I said, "You know, no idea. Let me think." He didn't say anything so I gave it my best shot. Independent band, I remember seeing the crowds at the shows growing and getting bigger, and we were hitting it hard. I could tell during the shows, from east coast to west, Canada, and beyond that we could have sold some units. So, 2000 units for an independent band is a start. And this was 10 years later. I said, "Well, I'm going to guess 25,000 records, Jeff."
He said, "Well, it was proven in court that it was 100,000 copies each of the first three records."
So that could have been a different story, a game-changer for me at the time. But in all fairness, in '92 it wasn't just the money. There were a lot of things at play. I don't know what to be happy for -- that it happened or it didn't. But we weren't getting paid the royalties and this proved it.
On playing now
I did have the good fortune some months back to play with my good friend Peter Bruntnell, a great singer-songwriter. I met him in Son Volt, touring with them in England, and he opened for us in 1999.
Dave Boquist from Son Volt called me in September of last year and said that Peter was coming to Nashville to play the Americana Music Conference, and he asked if I would be interested in backing him.
[After playing in Nashville] We wrapped up that weekend in Belleville, at Eckert's Orchard. Before I left town my friend Chuck was working at Eckert's and said, "Mike, you want to play a show? I'll give you a wad of cash." So I said, "Pete, do you want to play in Belleville for some money," and he said, "Uh, yes!" It was a great job. My hometown, down the street from where I live. If that's the last time I play, that's fine because it was a good time. My hometown, and Pete was there, my dad, my family. It was great. Peter was a conduit to get back to that stage.
I'd love to do that again with them. Or anybody. But I don't see it. You're asking me to see the future, and it's question marks. But I'm not stupid enough to say yes or no to anything in my own life because I know 2014 is going to be full of change, but I don't know in what regard. I'm really diving into the old records, and diving into musical history, even just in my life and it seems so pertinent and near. It's not a far stretch. I play at my house with my friends all the time. So yeah, I'll play. Whether or not it's seen by anyone else….