Wilco are an unstoppable force within American music. Led by Jeff Tweedy, the band have amassed an imposing catalogue, one that asks profound questions of themselves as musicians, and the traditions they operate within. Capable of surging ventures into the left-field, new album ‘Cruel Country’ finds Wilco enjoying a moment of return, with a 21 piece song cycle rooted in the acoustic guitar, and the ties that bind these musicians together.
Catch Wilco at Black Deer Festival next weekend (June 17th – 19th) – tickets.
The title itself caused a stir. Jeff Tweedy had long irked at the ‘country’ categorisation – even though pre-Wilco group Uncle Tupelo’s performance of ‘No Depression’ was utilised as the title of the alt-country movement’s in-house magazine, he’s never quite felt the tag was appropriate. Until now.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything particularly different,” he says. “I feel there’s always been an element of country music in there. The songs themselves grow out of that very habitual type of songwriting that I have, that is rooted in folk music and country music. That’s the default position of a song for me, it’s one that I can kind of sing with an acoustic guitar. So to me, they’re all folk songs, they’re all country songs.”
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Out now, it’s an incredible collection of songs, one that underlines the enduring potency of Wilco as a vessel. To match the release, Jeff Tweedy shared an absorbing essay, picking apart ‘country music’ as a term, and what it could potentially come to mean.
“I think that the main gist of what I was trying to say with the essay was okay, fine, it’s country. Listen, let’s just call it that. The name itself is what all names for records are meant to do – try and grab someone’s attention and hopefully get them to notice what you’re saying and pay attention.”
“Country music is a lot older than the term ‘country music’ anyway. And the different genres that we accept are all kind of agreed upon fictions, and mostly they’re marketing terms,” he says. “I’m drawn towards people on their porches, making the noises that became bluegrass and country. It’s like punk rock, to me. I think that the main consideration was to make noise and liberate themselves to find some way to express themselves completely.”
That sense of expression has always been at the forefront of Wilco’s work; with ‘Cruel Country’ it feels particularly apt, with little to no dividing wall between the listener and the organic production, and the resolute songwriting. To draw just one example, take the ensemble playing on ‘Bird Without A Tail’ and its exquisite coda, recorded live in the studio. “I love the way it sounds and I love how the band has grown to have this kind of faith and trust in each other to be able to achieve that kind of ensemble play.”
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It’s taken years, if not decades for Wilco to reach this level of mastery. The band are a fantastic live experience, and their European run includes a headline slot at Black Deer Festival, the award-winning Kent-based Americana feast. UK fans are certainly in for a treat, with Jeff Tweedy citing the heightened intensity of these post-lockdown performances.
“We did a relatively big tour last summer, and then a run of shows in the Fall. And none of us got COVID! How, I don’t know!” he laughs. “It does feel good. It still feels pretty strange, to be honest. There hasn’t been this cathartic moment where everything becomes… fine. And I’ve kind of given up hope that sort of thing will happen. It feels amazing to play music, and there is certainly an added weight. It’s not easy, but you take the small blessings, and try to never take it for granted.”
The band recently hosted their own Solid Sound Festival, a communal event featuring friends, peers, and admirers, all gathered in one place. “I mean, it’s great!” he beams. “It’s always great. It’s always a really touching experience to get together and play with so many artists and musicians that we admire. I can’t remember the last time I felt that much joy!”
Wilco naturally headlined, and for their encore were joined by Clash favourite Japanese Breakfast. Gushing in his praise of Michelle Zauner’s work – “just a wonderful person” – he was also overjoyed by her own onstage praise of Wilco’s impact on her own work. “I think it’s like the most flattering thing I could possibly ever hear,” he says. “Someone a few generations younger, taking our records and getting something from them. I don’t know if there’s a higher aspiration than that.”
The two have another hobby in common, Clash points out – both have released fantastic memoirs. “Well, I’m actually going to work on another book,” he reveals. “Pretty soon, probably this summer. I enjoy writing prose and I’m trying to get better at it.”
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If nothing else, Jeff Tweedy has a stunning work ethic. Alongside Wilco’s in-depth catalogue he’s also a sought-after producer – at times, he seems unstoppable. “I always think that writer’s block… is not really what’s happening when people go through it,” he explains. “I think that they just, they just don’t like what they’re writing, and so they stop themselves from writing. I have worked really hard at allowing myself to have a habitual practice of writing and not judging it.”
“I don’t really have writer’s block, but I definitely have periods where I’m writing things that I don’t like as much. And I always feel like you have to write through that. No song is wasted. No gig is wasted. No bad note is wasted. It’s just a part of the whole process.”
Music, it seems, it his entire life – it’s his morning cup of coffee, and the final conversation he’ll have in the evening. “I try and write every day,” he adds. “The thing that also happens when you have a practice like that is that I go back and look for things that are inspiring to me months and months later, sometimes years later. And I find things that have no memory of writing. I’ll have no memory of even being there when they were written! And that allows a certain amount of objectivity about things.”
Naturally, that means that there’s a lot more to explore than just the finished product. Sharing demos and alternative takes on his Substack, Jeff is drawn towards the idea of permitting fans to see the unfinished sketches, the preliminary drafts. “I like letting people in the process because of my exposure to rough mixes and bootlegs and outtakes from everybody that I’ve ever been able to find them for,” he says, citing Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series and the ongoing Neil Young Archive releases as prime examples. “That information is invaluable to a songwriter like myself, and many, many, many people. It’s the first time that they hear that their heroes aren’t perfect, and that’s an incredibly liberating thing to discover. All those artists had to go through sounding bad, in order to sound good. And even when it was bad, they found a really important lesson.”
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With a full vinyl re-issue of seminal 2001 album ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ incoming, the temptation is to look back – but not for long. “I think Wilco’s always been much more oriented by moving forwards,” he smiles. “We don’t allow too much nostalgia to creep in. I mean, we did those anniversary shows, and it was challenging, in a way, but I was really glad we didn’t choose to do a whole tour like that.”
Another interesting action taken by Jeff Tweedy was the decision to divert 5% of his royalties towards social justice organisations, a decision taken after the murder of George Floyd and the global protests that followed. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, he says – the songwriter had been seeking a way to contribute for some time, with the protests crystallising his thoughts.
“I absolutely encourage other artists to do it,” he says. “I’m not really comfortable getting on a soapbox, but I felt it was the right thing to do, considering how much music I hear today, and how much I hear in my own music, that comes from the influence of things that were not compensated fairly. A lot of genius that was treated very poorly and stolen from… just as our country is actually built on that, in a lot of very powerful ways.”
“It wasn’t easy to set up, to be honest. It was confusing, it was a bureaucratic nightmare to figure out how to get people on board with something which I thought would be really simple and easy. There’s been a hesitancy… but we did it. And we have had a few people reach out to us about how we did it. And we’ve shared our information with different artists, and there are a handful of people that are doing it, too. And that’s really, really satisfying.”
We end by pointing Wilco back towards the future, and their upcoming plans. A group who thirst for the live environment, Jeff Tweedy isn’t about to let Wilco rest on its laurels – not when there’s work to be done, and songs to be written.
“Oh I’ve been writing,” he says. “I don’t stop. I just like writing. I like playing the guitar. We’re working on another record, one we started before the pandemic. But I’m always throwing songs out there and I’m hoping they find a home someday.”
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Catch Wilco at Black Deer Festival (June 17th – 19th) – tickets.
Words: Robin Murray
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