Wilco: Not Just a Country Rock Band

Jeff Tweedy's country-punk sound pays homage to the music that inspires him, not the people behind it

WILCO in circa 1997. Credit: Patrick Ford/Redferns/Getty

You'd hardly know that tomorrow is opening night. The five members of Wilco only have an hour or so of playing time left at Dress Rehearsals, a practice space tucked away in an industrial stretch of the West Loop area of Chicago, before their gear is packed up and loaded out. In 12 hours, the band will be on a tour bus going to Indianapolis, the first stop on a concert grind that includes 29 shows in only 33 days. But instead of whipping a set list into shape and getting serious about the purist country-rock twang that is supposed to be his mission in life, Wilco's founding singer, guitarist and songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, is leading the rest of the group through a tour of his favorite classic-pop and trash-rock songbooks.

Tweedy's broad, boyish features, framed by a thick, Beatleish thatch of dark brown hair, are bright with enthusiasm as he strums and sings his way through John Lennon's raga-fla-vored "I'm Only Sleeping." He and guitarist and keyboard player Jay Bennett go into meatball-metal mode for a short, roaring burst of Mott the Hoople's "Rock & Roll Queen." There's also a shot of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," and a determined Tweedy takes a stab at the Kinks' 1971 romp "20th Century Man," although no one else in the band seems to know the song.

Tweedy, Bennett, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer and pedal steel guitarist Bob Egan (who replaced multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston last year) eventually get down to business — tackling a few Tweedy originals from Wilco's two albums, 1995's A.M. and the recent, critically acclaimed double-CD Being There. But they do so with a startling, manic-garage-rock glee. "I Got You (at the End of the Century)," from Being There, sounds like the Raspberries soaked in feedback; A.M.'s "I Must Be High" packs a triple-guitar, arena-rock wallop. Wilco are widely touted as the Great Breakthrough Hope of the so-called No Depression scene, a rising clan of bands and solo performers — among them the Bottle Rockets, Iris DeMent, BR5-49, Whiskeytown and Kevin Welch — considered to be country music's post-Nirvana answer to the glitzy orthodoxy of 1990s Nashville. But at Dress Rehearsals, Wilco sound more like a power-pop dream machine than some premillennial reincarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers.

"Not a lot of country music tonight, huh?" Tweedy asks with a hearty laugh as he drives home after rehearsal, heading out to the white-clapboard, turn-of-the-century house near the Old Irving section of Chicago, where he lives with his wife, Sue Miller, and their year-old son, Spencer. "Mott, the Kinks, the Beatles. We did an X song the other day. People have these ideas that you have to be or do one particular kind of thing in music. Even I can be like that sometimes. I find it hard to believe that Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth sits at home listening to Lefty Frizzell.

"But I'll bet he does," Tweedy contends, "or something very much like it. You don't get to a position like this — being able to make the kind of music that inspires you and inspires others — by shutting yourself off from everything that's out in the world."

Tweedy has spent nearly half of his 29 years living for and making music. He was 15 when he met Jay Farrar, a fellow student at Belleville West High School, down in Illinois' southern farm belt. They quickly formed a musical partnership that evolved into the country-punk cult trio Uncle Tupelo. Together with original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, Tweedy and Farrar developed a heartfelt, precociously poetic blend of punky-guitar crunch and sweet cornfield soul that became the touchstone sound for a new generation of roots-conscious rock bands. In 1994, Farrar quit Uncle Tupelo to start his own band, Son Volt. It was a messy split that hurt Tweedy deeply and is still the subject of heated argument among religious Tupelo fans. But Tweedy quickly recovered, forming Wilco from the remnants of Tupelo's final five-man touring lineup and immediately recording A.M.

"I don't have a whole lot of life experience other than music," Tweedy admits. "I've been playing in bands, going to shows, listening to records." He even married a woman who runs a rock club — Miller is the co-owner of Lounge Ax, in Chicago. Not surprisingly, Tweedy's music is rife with totemic references to the artists and works that inspire him. His song "Acuff-Rose," on the '93 Tupelo album Anodyne, is named after the legendary country-music song-publishing firm; the title of A.M. is Tweedy's nod to a bygone era of Top 40 radio and 45-rpm pop innocence."Misunderstood, "the long distortion-scarred ballad that opens Being There, contains a lyric quote from "Amphetamine," a song written in the mid-'7os by the late Cleveland-punk icon Peter Laughner.

But Tweedy insists, "I'm a huge fan of music, not of the people behind it. I enjoy the moment more. A song at a particular time in a certain situation is great. That's what gives it all its power." Which may be why Tweedy is so perplexed by his own high-priest status in the No Depression movement, which was named after Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut album [which, in turn, was titled after the band's cover of the 1930s Carter Family song "No Depression (in Heaven)"]. Tweedy estimates that Tupelo's four albums — No Depression, Still Feel Gone (1991), the fireside-acoustic project March 16-20, 1992 (1992) and Anodyne — have sold only between 30,000 and 50,000 copies apiece, a modest tally that doesn't account for the mythology that has grown up around the band. "It's more like the idea of a band, " Tweedy suggests, "that has been romanticized." In comparison, Wilco's Being There has sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide since its release last fall.

"The March album was the one where people really went overboard," Tweedy says. "People really wanted to believe that we were coal miners: 'They've been sitting on the back porch playing these songs with their granddaddies.' No, man. We learned the songs at the library. Bought 'em on records." In fact, most of the public-domain material covered by Tupelo on the March album came from a Rounder Records compilation of old folk and country tunes, High Atmosphere.

"It's curious as to how Uncle Tupelo became the legend," he says, almost apologetically, "as opposed to seeing articles about Frank Proffitt, the guy who originally did 'Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.' Frankly" — Tweedy looks down at the tape recorder in front of him, then grins with good-natured embarrassment — "I think it would be way more interesting to read about him."

Jeff Tweedy's original idea for Being There was kind of weird, even a bit depressing if you really think about it: a concept album about how rock & roll wasn't that important to him anymore. "It wasn't really an autobiographical idea," he insists, sitting at home and balancing a slightly bewil-dered Spencer on his knee. "But rock & roll had been this huge thing in my life and" — he looks down at Spencer with beaming first-time-dad pride — "I was coming to terms with the idea that it's not that important. It's not the end of the world if it goes away." He pauses thoughtfully. "I wanted to convince myself of that."

It didn't work, although it took 19 songs — 77 minutes of music, recorded during several months in four studios — for Tweedy to realize it: "In the end, that was the punch line: that music is important."

Spread across two discs (an attempt to evoke the old-school listening experience of a vinyl double album), Being There is lively with emotional challenge — one song is titled "Why Would You Wanna Live" — and frantic in its stylistic extremes. "Misunderstood" and the epic soliloquy "Sunken Treasure" both feature alternating passages of quiet, harrowing confession and convulsive white noise like the Butthole Surfers gate-crashing the third Big Star album. There's the cheesy-blues bravado of "Kingpin," the sweet barn-dance swing of "Someday Soon" and not one but two versions of "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" — one played with bunkhouse-Faces charm, the other (with the title flipped around) tarted up a la the Beach Boys on Wild Honey. Compared with the sunny, conventional country-rock tone of A.M., Being There is raw, earthy and reckless. To get that field recording effect, Wilco would often rehearse, cut and mix a song all in a single day.

"We talked about it, wanting to throw off the No Depression thing-that big blast of excess combined with pop songs," says Stirratt, who was a guitar tech for Uncle Tupelo before joining the Anodyne-era lineup. "I don't think we'd be lying if we said the record has kind of a 'fuck you' attitude." "There were songs we knew for all of five minutes," notes Bennett, an alumnus of the Midwestern punk-pop group Titanic Love Affair. "'Sunken Treasure' was one of those. Jeff played it in the lounge — we walked out and did it in the second take. The falling apart [in the middle] is real falling apart."

That spirit of spontaneous, often schizophrenic risk underscores the strong sense of dislocation and searching in Tweedy's lyrics on Being There and in the bittersweet creak of his voice, particularly when he's in slow-ballad gcar. Stirratt remembers "snippets of phrases from the tour bus ending up in the songs."

"There are a lot of typical rock-road things happening on the record," Tweedy concurs, then adds, "I've had people say the opposite, that there's some sort of settling down with it." Either way, the title, Being There, with its simultaneous allusions to motion and permanence, makes sense. Tweedy claims he didn't actually get the title from Jerzy Kosinski's novel of the same name (or the subsequent film adaptation, starring Peter Sellers): "I just liked the phrase 'being there' initially."

Nevertheless, he says, "I think there are a lot of parallels between rock bands and Chauncey Gardener [the book's protagonist, an idiot savant with a penchant for aphorisms who manages to become a U.S. presidential candidate]. Things do happen to musicians. They say things that aren't particularly profound and have people attach meaning to them.

"But I also think Chauncey is a pure character. And what he is saying, in its simplest form, is true:' The garden will grow in the spring.' Not to over-romanticize the idea of a rock band — that's probably what musicians are doing. They're saying, 'It's OK to have fun. It's OK, saying the simplest things.'"

Considering his attempts to disavow, or at least downplay, his country-rock celebrity, Jeff Tweedy actually has real roots in that culture. When he was a kid, he attended family gatherings in Belleville where his uncle and cousins picked up guitars and played old chestnuts such as "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." One of Tweedy's distant relations was "Cousin" Herb Henson, a country DJ and television-show host in Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1950s. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were among the stars who appeared on Henson's TV program. "Johnny Cash remembered him when we met," Tweedy says with awe. "I think Cousin Herb was friends with Roy Clark, and my grandmother, through him, knew Flatt and Scruggs.

"I didn't know about all this stuff until much later,"Tweedy goes on. "You can make it sound like it was important. I could play it out. But I probably heard [Bachman-Turner Overdrive's] 'Takin' Care of Business' more often at those family gatherings than 'Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad.'"

Born Aug.25, 1967, in Belleville, Tweedy, the youngest of four children (his sister and two brothers are all in or near their 40s), had plenty of opportunities to rifle through his siblings' '6os-pop and '7os-rock record collections while he was growing up. His father had a lifelong desire to play the organ but never got around to it. Instead, Tweedy's dad labored for 43 years for the Alton and Southern Railroad, starting out as a diesel mechanic when he was 17. After taking technical courses (he never finished high school), the elder Tweedy worked in the switching yard and, before he retired, became a switching-tower superintendent.

"I mention my dad all the time in interviews," Jeff says proudly. "You get asked all these questions: 'Isn't it hard doing interviews?' No. I'm maybe going to do interviews for five or six more years, if I'm lucky. For my dad, it was every day. He would rather take a check for vacation time than take a vacation."

Tweedy was in English class at Belleville West High School when he first made Jay Farrar's acquaintance. It was probably inevitable that they would meet; they were two of the only guys in school who liked punk rock. "It was a writing exercise," Tweedy remembers, "where you have to stand up and say something about the person next to you. We didn't write about each other. But the people who wrote about us said, 'Jeff's favorite band is the Ramones'; 'Jay's favorite band is the Sex Pistols.'

"I was in awe of the guy, to be honest," Tweedy says, "because he played guitar and I was just learning how to play. He played in a band with his brothers, so I weaseled my way in because I had a guitar: 'Well, I'm coming along.'" It's amazing, in retrospect, that Tweedy and Farrar worked and made music together for as long as they did — nearly 10 years. For a time, they even shared an apartment. When asked how somebody could tell them apart if they were sitting in a room together, Tweedy laughs, then declares, "I'd be the one talking. Jay would be the one not talking. It was about as polar as that."

That polarity neatly summarizes the state of Uncle Tupelo in their last years: a partnership of convenience strained at the seams. Tweedy calls Anodyne "basically two songwriters sharing a band." Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, a native of Nashville, who replaced Mike Heidorn in 1993, and played on Anodyne, remembers quite well the tension at the recording sessions for that album, in Austin, Texas.

"I was always conscious of giving Jay space," Coomer says. "And I felt it back at the hotel. We were all staying in this condominium, and there was definitely a bit of stress there."

Tweedy is cautious about speaking too much about his relationship with Farrar and how it came to such a sour end. He'd prefer not to discuss it at all. But if pressed, Tweedy will maintain that there was a lot that was right and wonderful about Tupelo, right up to the end. "I'm proud of the last two albums. I can still listen to those and think they're interesting. The first two, I hear a lot of Dinosaur Jr," he notes, rolling his eyes sheepishly. "At the time, we were just trying to figure out how to make records. "I don't have any bad feeling toward Jay, honestly," he states firmly. "I did — just because I couldn't believe that anybody would leave it. I was having such a good time. Jay and I have always been different people, and I really accepted that."

What Tweedy found hard to take were the stereotypes perpetuated in the press and in some Tupelo-debate circles when Trace, the debut album by Farrar's Son Volt, came out in the same year as A.M. and outsold the Wilco record 2-to-1, adding a charged air of competition to an already bitter breakup. "I was the pop guy, the simplistic writer," Tweedy says irritably, "and Jay was the poetic genius and obviously the main guy in Uncle Tupelo. Why do I care? It's an ego thing. Mike [Heidorn], Jay and I were all there. It didn't happen by anyone's grand design. And it should really be listened to like that."

Ironically, Tweedy is now confronting the same issue — whose band is it? — with Wilco, a group essentially formed in reaction to the emotional politics that doomed Uncle Tupelo. "That was a big problem for the growth of Wilco as a band," Tweedy admits. "We really wanted everyone to cling together when we started — like the whole idea of a band when you're in high school. And that's just unrealistic now." The members live in separate cities — Tweedy and Bob Egan in Chicago; Coomer in Nashville; Bennett in Champaign, Ill.; Stirratt in New Orleans — and have career sidelines. Tweedy plays in the Soul Asylum/Jayhawks offshoot combo Golden Smog, and the others occasionally do session work in Nashville.

"We basically have one reason to be together," Tweedy says, "and that's just to play music." Specifically, his songs. "Which is also a weird thing. Everybody in the band writes. And I'm not in a place to let go of that as much as I was in Uncle Tupelo."

Egan, who came to Wilco after two and a half years with the Chicago-based band Freakwater, is actually impressed by Tweedy's artistic largess. Although he didn't join Wilco until Being There was completed, Egan performed on the album, playing National steel guitar on the final track, the delightfully sloppy shuffle "Dreamer in My Dreams."

"We were all playing live," Egan recalls. "I thought, 'Well, do I get out front and play or just hang behind, or what?' After the fourth take, I realized, 'It doesn't matter. We're just messing around.' And you can hear how it trails off. Jeff actually walks into the piano room, throws his guitar down and starts singing into the piano mike as Jay [Bennett] is improvising. Jay goes off on his thing; we all roll in. "I would take it as a big sign of confidence," Egan notes, grinning, "that Jeff would let something as close to him as a song be torn apart by others."

Tweedy shares more than that. Financially, Wilco are a democratic affair; each member gets an equal split of the band's income. Tweedy makes additional money from song-publishing royalties, but he designates a percentage to be shared with the rest of the group — "For anybody who plays on the record, as long as that record's in print," he says.

"It's kind of an embarrassing thing to talk about," Tweedy maintains, trying not to overdo the noble-artist act. But, he insists, "That's the way it should be. Hopefully, the songs are good enough to stand on their own. But realistically, I know that if you play with people whom you trust, they're adding something that deserves compensation and reward, if there's anything like that to be had.

"Of course," he adds with precise comic timing, "it's not really a lucrative thing we're talking about."

That could change soon. On opening night of the new Wilco touring season, at a club called the Vogue, in Indianapolis, Tweedy welcomes the highly partisan crowd, speaking with his tongue tucked deep in cheek: "This is our first show of'97. We all hope to have our own tour buses by the end of '97."

But the signs are encouraging. Airplay for Being There's first single, the hard-rock version of "Outtasite (Out-ta Mind)," is on the rise. A new video for the song has been completed. "We're doing better than ever, honestly," Tweedy says, with some amazement. He's working out the kinks in his celebrity — the overwhelming Tupelo legend, the media furor over alternative-country music, lingering questions about the split with Farrar — but with Being There, Tweedy has come to an empowering conclusion. At the Vogue, as Wilco pull out of the howling midsection of "Sunken Treasure," Tweedy goes into the song's signature mantra — "I was maimed by rock & roll/I was tamed by rock & roll/I got my name from rock & roll" — and then, at the end, throws in an extra line: "I'm not ashamed of rock & roll."

"I look at the situation, and I'm mystified by it," he admits. "I'm excited to be talking to someone from Rolling Stone. I'm excited that I can afford a house. Then there are the things that disturb me — like when I haven't written a song for a while, or when I have to leave Spencer and Sue to go on tour.

"But I want the record to do great," Tweedy continues. "I want to do whatever we can for it. You can't pretend you're not selling it. And it's for your own good, in most cases.

"To pretend anything different," he declares without apology, "is flat-out lying to yourself."