It looks like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has finally returned to his roots.
You should know that his first significant foray into recorded music was with Uncle Tupelo, who achieved cult status in the late ’80s and early ’90s as pioneers of the “alt-country” movement.
But since forming Wilco in Chicago 28 years ago, Tweedy has taken one of America’s most captivating bands to bold new sonic horizons.
A restless soul surrounded by talented musicians using a wide range of instruments and effects, Tweedy taps into his nation’s psyche with laser-guided precision. . . without falling into the gender trap. So far.
Wilco’s new long player, a 21-track double, is, shockingly shockingly, described by the man himself as a country album.
Called Cruel Country, it’s not old school like Johnny Cash in his heyday, but it has an acoustic, stripped down, folksy feel with tasteful flourishes of lap steel guitar.
It’s still a Wilco album, informed by Tweedy’s unease about the State of the Union in 2022 and full of very human emotion.
Speaking from his Windy City home where he runs studio The Loft, Tweedy, 54, said: “A genre like country is conventional fiction and, in a strange way, a band is conventional fiction.
“So I think it’s pretty exciting to apply that limitation and see how we fit in.”
It turned out that Tweedy and his cohort of Nels Cline (guitar), Pat Sansone (various instruments), Glenn Kotche (percussion), John Stirratt (bass) and Mikail Jorgensen (keyboards) had “an amazing, liberating time” .
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He continues, “We’re not exactly targeting country music. We weren’t trying to recreate anything like the Bakersfield sound (Buck Owens, Merle Haggard), but country has been part of our vocabulary for nearly 30 years.
That along with rock, art-pop, gospel, electronica, jazz, ambient noise and, on one particular ten-minute track called Spiders (Kidsmoke), Krautrock.
Tweedy reminisces about the days of his Uncle Tupelo, the band he formed with Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn in Belleville, what he calls a “semi-rural” part of Illinois.
Their debut album, No Depression, takes its name from their rootsy cover of a song by country pioneers The Carter Family, who were all the rage in the 1930s and 40s.
But the record also carried very strong post-punk rock in the form of Graveyard Shift and Whiskey Bottle.
“We were trying to bond. . . folk music is punk rock and punk rock is folk music,” says Tweedy.
By folk, he also means country because in America, the lines merge into one great tradition.
Tweedy says, “Having grown up in the States and certainly if you’re from a rural area, it’s pretty hard to avoid country music.
“It wasn’t exactly what my friends and neighbors were listening to, but it was on TV all the time on shows like Hee Haw (songs and comedy in the fictional Kornfield Kounty).
“Back then, you turned the dial on the radio looking for something to listen to and you found yourself on a country station.”
He continues, “When we got Uncle Tupelo together, I realized that Hank Williams was a much more terrifying character than Henry Rollins (Black Flag hardcore punk).
“And we were just a bunch of dumb kids who were lucky enough to stumble upon some great music and were open-minded enough to listen to it.”
By the time Uncle Tupelo disbanded in 1994 and Tweedy founded Wilco, the term alt-country had come into vogue.
But he says, “As far as I’m concerned, alternative country has been part of rock and roll since the beginning.
“The Beatles had country songs and the Stones certainly did. By the time we got there, that was a well-established fact.
For Tweedy, the role of The Byrds is overlooked amid the adulation of Gram Parsons, who joined them on the seminal album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, and later died aged 26 in Joshua National Park. Tree because of drugs and drink.
“Gram had this beautiful corpse that people are obsessed with,” he says.
“Dying young has created a mythology around his contribution, but the Byrds mean so much more to me overall.”
Another of Tweedy’s lifelong inspirations is the aforementioned Carter family who made traditional music very popular.
“They were pretty miraculous,” he says. “What amazing service. AP Carter collected all these songs. . . even if he shouldn’t have put his name on it!
“And what about Mother Maybelle Carter’s guitar playing? . . how did she find that?
Well, she said she just played what she wanted to hear, so she made up a style.
With all of these thoughts and influences bubbling through Tweedy’s head, you might now understand why Wilco’s new album isn’t such a surprise.
Before the Covid pandemic kicked in, they had started working on a very different type of record, as he explains.
“It was more along the lines of Summerteeth (1999) or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) but when we got together we immediately started gravitating towards those songs (Cruel Country).
The “country” constraints imposed put Tweedy squarely in a comfort zone he never knew existed.
“The songs seemed to flow out of me unhindered,” he says. “Before we knew it, we had made quite a record.”
Within the set framework, Tweedy was able to express his feelings about America and the “confusion consuming” his countrymen.
It does not specifically address the Trump era, the Mexican border wall, climate change, the murder of George Floyd, mass shootings, Covid lockdowns, abortion rights, erosion of democracy , social media naughtiness, but all of those things permeate the atmosphere of his songs.
“For those who had an idea of where things were headed, it was a disorienting time,” says Tweedy.
“So contrasting all of that against the solid architecture of a country or folk song makes it more understandable.”
On the title track of Cruel Country, he hums, “I love my country stupid and cruel. . . red, white and blue.
Tweedy explains the duality in this sentiment: “I feel bitterly angry with a lot of my fellow Americans and the things that I see.
“But you just can’t cut yourself off completely from other emotions, love and the feeling of connection. We all need each other, whether we’re at our best or our worst. Right now, everything the world is mad at the wrong people.
On the song Hints, he addresses America’s polarity when he sings, “There’s no middle ground when the other side would rather kill than compromise.”
He says: “I grew up in a very racist environment. It wasn’t discussed in our household, but it was ubiquitous.
Ultimately, however, Tweedy believes “we’re all in this together and that actually gives me some hope.”
Story To Tell reinforces its optimism with this line: “The world is still on the brink but hearts are stronger than you think.”
He maintains that hope for the world inherited from his two musician sons, Spencer and Sammy, who joined him on streaming 200 episodes of The Tweedy Show during the pandemic.
“GIVES ME A LITTLE HOPE”
“They’re so smart and caring and they’re friends,” he says.
“Unlike me, they’re city kids, so they have a level of awareness.”
Spencer, he reveals, has “stayed very busy” working with rising Chicago star Liam Kazar and folk singer Joan Shelley, among others.
“And Sammy perfected his more electronic music. He also sang in the group pretty much all the time. He’s the youngest and skinniest of me.
While Wilco weathered the uncertainty of line-up changes during its early years, the last 18 years have been marked by stability.
Tweedy accepts that it’s his responsibility to keep things on track. “I’m working on it and I want every member to be invested in the group,” he says.
“They helped build it. . . and that’s not such a bad way to live!
This brings us to the 20th anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which Wilco performed live in its entirety. (A box set loaded with extras is coming soon.)
Despite its status as a groundbreaking classic of “America’s Radiohead”, the album was produced under difficult circumstances – disagreements with the band, label issues and Tweedy’s terrible migraines which led to an addiction to painkillers.
‘I WAS BLINDED’
Perhaps because of all the baggage around YHF, he’s found recent gigs more stressful than he imagined.
“I was blindsided by the songs performed in that order, all together,” he says. “I didn’t expect the emotional impact.
“We never stopped playing any of the songs in all the years that followed.
“But they’re thrown into a totally different atmosphere, surrounded by stuff that came after, and just that knowledge creates a life raft. I think, ‘Here’s a song from last year. I did it, I am still here’.
Tweedy says the shows induce “a vague and oppressive weight but, at the same time, felt rewarding and cathartic.
“Every night I cried at the end of (last track) Reservations. Everyone was standing there, really quiet, which was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in a theater.
“That slight delay before people started clapping was triumphant.”
Talking to Tweedy, bandleader, solo artist, author, you sense a man consumed by music with time for nothing else. . . but he straightens me up.
“I don’t feel like I’m working too hard,” he says. “For me, writing is about switching off. It’s partly how I dealt with stress and internal discomfort. It’s also a way of connecting with myself.”
He also tells about his other great pleasure in life. “I walk in the woods,” he says. “I do a lot of hiking!”
Tweedy and his wife Sue Miller own a rural retreat “across Lake Michigan”.
“It’s a pretty weird place because it’s a forest with sand dunes that you don’t expect to see together. When I’m on tour, I tend to spend as much time as possible outdoors.
“I usually get driven to a green space, but if it’s not available, I just look on a map and drive to the nearest park.
“Even a good brisk walk around town is pretty effective at untangling your knots.”
Nothing like leaving your Yankee Hotel for a Foxtrot in the Cruel Country!