by Mark McDermott
February, 1992, a frigid night in Iowa City, Iowa, but upstairs at Gabe’s Oasis a sweaty frenzy was underway.
We’d heard about this band, Uncle Tupelo, who were credited with creating something that was being called alt-country. They were from a little town called Belleville down by St. Louis and they had had two singers and songwriters – the serious and formidable Jay Farrar, with his dark country baritone, and the bouncier and somewhat elvin Jeff Tweedy, who had a warm rasp of a voice but sort of seemed like the little brother of the two.
I don’t remember a whole lot of the night. It was boozy. But I know the band played a song called “D. Boon” about the Minutemen’s lead singer, and “I Wanna Destroy You” by the Circle Jerks, and they were super loud. They seemed more like a punk rock band more than anything country. But then they played an oddly gorgeous acoustic set-within-a-set, with sweetly picked guitars giving way to this feeling of endless spaciousness, like a country road leading up to the sky.
Uncle Tupelo broke up two years later, but their music stayed with me as I lived out my own alternative country. For me, those were years of cross-country driving and hitchhiking, from Iowa to Alaska and back, generally just wandering the American West. Farrar had started a band called Son Volt, and Tweedy started a band called Wilco, and like a lot of people who loved Uncle Tupelo, I stuck with Farrar. Son Volt’s first album, Trace, was a masterpiece, a brooding and poetic road song of a record, spare and clear and somehow inevitable. Wilco’s first record, A.M., by contrast, felt like a pure pop record, bouncy and happy yet inessential.
In Tweedy’s memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back Again), he acknowledges his own misgivings about that record.
“I can hear something missing when I listen to that record now, and it’s understandable to me in a way that it never would have been then,” he writes. “Since we were in high school together, every song I had written was meant to sit next to Jay Farrar’s songs. Now Jay’s songs were missing, but I could still hear them. They were still in my head, to be honest. I was still in the mode of writing songs as if they were one side of a conversation. Which explains why A.M. can be as annoying to me as the guy loudly sharing his end of a phone call in a quiet restaurant.”
Tweedy also recalls that Wilco – which was comprised of almost all of the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo – were on the road in a van when they first heard an advance copy of Trace. They listened in silence, then threw the tape out the window. They knew they’d been outdone. But Tweedy also rightfully still loves that first Wilco record.
“To me, at the time, ‘Passenger Side’ along with ‘Casino Queen,’ ‘Box Full of Letters,’ and ‘I Must Be High’ felt like progress—not so much in terms of content, but in my ability to craft sturdy, memorable country-tinged pop songs,” he writes. “It was an exciting feeling to finally play the songs we’d recorded together. Wilco could be whatever we wanted. That was freeing, and also terrifying. What the fuck was Wilco going to be?”
The answer to that question has unfolded over the last 25 years, and it is this: Wilco one of the most astonishingly inventive bands of our time, the engine for the creative genius of Jeff Tweedy to fully take flight. Even for those of us caught up in the Uncle Tupelo wars, it didn’t take long to catch on that in Wilco, something dazzliing was occurring. For me the realization came circa 1998, when in the course of my wanderings I happened to be living at a candy warehouse in South San Francisco and Wilco played a free live show at the Embarcedero. By this time Wilco had released a brilliant double record, Being There, and collaborated with Billy Bragg on a record of unfinished Woody Guthrie lyrics finally set to song, Mermaid Avenue. I remember Tweedy singing “California Stars” as oversized beach balls bounced up and down upon the crowd: “I'd like to rest my heavy head tonight/On a bed of California stars/I'd like to lay my weary bones tonight/On a bed of California stars/I'd love to feel your hand touching mine/And tell me why I must keep working on/Yes, I'd give my life to lay my head tonight/On a bed of California stars…”
The song is credited to both Tweedy and Guthrie, and the pair are natural compatriots. Guthrie was famously a fountain of songs. He filled notebooks with song titles, so he could later just open it up and pick a song to write. He was unfussy about the act of creating. Tweedy is the same.
“I try to make something new, something that wasn’t there when I woke up, by the end of every day,” Tweedy writes in his memoir. “It doesn’t have to be long or perfect or good. It just has to be something. I used to fill up notebooks with poems and lyrics, now I do it with my phone. Sometimes I’ll give myself a time limit of no more than twenty minutes to write and record a song into my phone.”
Like Guthrie, Tweedy isn’t interested in announcing his genius, but is really more interested in alerting you to your own. A couple years ago, he wrote How to Write One Song, which is a weird and beautiful kind of self-help book, described by the New York Times Ezra Klein as “the most generous and approachable guide to the creative process I’ve read.”
That day in San Francisco I realized the vast inclusiveness of Tweedy’s vision. He wasn’t singing to prove any larger point. He was just there to make the balls keep bouncing.
“I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art,” Tweedy writes. “Creating creates creators.”
Everything is a potential spark. At the turn of the century, Tweedy, an inveterate record store scavenger, came across a CD called The Conet Project that was a collection of Cold War-era shortwave radio spy transmissions. It was a lot of cryptic beeps and unrelated words and hisses and ghostly voices, and he couldn’t get it out of his head, listening to it for hours on end.
“The way people communicated or ultimately failed to communicate in The Conet Project, it’s not all that different to me than my own efforts to communicate,” he wrote. “Most of the conversations I’ve been involved in during my adult life are just slightly less awkward versions of The Conet Project.”
Out of this obsession came Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which used found sounds and cryptic wordplay along with Tweedy’s natural buoyant songcraft to create Wilco’s unparalleled masterpiece, an album Rolling Stone ranks as the third best thus far this century. The record company they were signed with, Sire, rejected the album, and so Wilco released it for free – this was 2001, back before everything was free – on the internet. It became a viral sensation, and launched the band into the stratosphere. Wilco has been humming along on “Starship Casual” (as Tweedy calls his substack newsletter) ever since. They’ve released a dozen records that are predictable only in their unpredictability, warmth, and superb musicianship. Nobody calls them alt-country anymore, or even Americana. They are described as “alternative rock,” which says almost nothing except they aren’t quite rock. A deeper truth is that Wilco has always been about creating your own alternative country, and not just in music. In Wilco country, the values are creativity, and, against long odds, kindness.
And so naturally, this year, the band emerged out of pandemic isolation and recorded the closest thing they have thus far come to an actual country record. It’s called Cruel Country and it’s a softly-spinning, twangy meditation on the USA, circa 2022.
Tweedy, in a long note written to accompany the release of Cruel Country in June, remarked that people often somehow labeled Wilco as country simply because its Uncle Tupelo background. He said it was something they’d never been comfortable with, but coming out of the pandemic, finally sitting in a room with his bandmates again, country music is what came out most naturally.
“More than any other genre, Country music, to me, a white kid from middle-class middle America, has always been the ideal place to comment on what most troubles my mind — which for more than a little while now has been the country where I was born, these United States,” Tweedy wrote. “And because it is the country I love, and because it’s Country music that I love, I feel a responsibility to investigate their mirrored problematic natures. I believe it’s important to challenge our affections for things that are flawed…Country music is simply designed to aim squarely at the low-hanging fruit of the truth. If someone can sing it, and it’s given a voice... well, then it becomes very hard not to see. We’re looking at it. It’s a cruel country, and it’s also beautiful. Love it or leave it. Or if you can’t love it, maybe you’ve already left.”
Tweedy told Esquire that the the making of Cruel Country after the experience of the pandemic returned him to the very basics his musical instincts – finding a song to sing together.
“It's simple. It's elemental,” he said. “I feel very blessed to have been put in a position to tour around the world and make records and play music for people. I think it's just a miracle. But within that little context of my whole life, there have been little squabbles within communities over authenticity, little squabbles over styles, squabbles over how people go about making their fucking music as if it's something that can be critiqued. But during this period of deprivation, it occurred to me that making music is really everybody trying to figure out how to have more good days than fucking bad days.”
Wilco plays BeachLife Ranch September 18.