Wilco: Not Just a Country Rock Band
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.”
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