Jeff Tweedy may be best known to Nation readers as Billy Bragg’s collaborator (along with his band Wilco) on the Mermaid Avenue recordings of recent years–two great albums that set unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics against fresh, folk-rock tunes composed by Bragg and Wilco. And although the singer/songwriter/guitar player has an abiding respect for folk music, there’s more to Tweedy–and Wilco–than the alt-country tag that’s often applied to him and his band. Just listen to Wilco’s 1999 super-pop release Summerteeth. Or even better, the upcoming (and enigmatically titled) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot–a complicated, unpredictable record so good that AOL Time Warner paid for it twice.
Well, kind of. Reprise, an AOLTW imprint and Wilco’s longtime label, found little to like in YHF, which was completed last summer and originally scheduled for release on September 11. In fact, Reprise felt so certain that YHF was an un-“radio friendly” career-ender that the label released Wilco from its contract. Instead of disappointment, Tweedy was ecstatic: “There we were with our record,” he says. “We owned our record. And that’s like a dream come true.” Determined to get YHF to Wilco fans–and there are a lot of them–the band toured the East Coast and made the entire record available for free downloading on the band’s website (www.wilcoworld.net) before finding a new label to distribute the album through more conventional channels.
In January, YHF found a new home at eclectic label Nonesuch, another AOLTW imprint. Tweedy calls it “a bit of a rock-and-roll swindle.” (More on that later.)
But that’s not all that Tweedy and Wilco went through last year. The band replaced two core members, was nominated for a Grammy for Mermaid Avenue II and found itself the focus of a documentary film called (like the opening track on YHF) I’m Trying to Break Your Heart. A project of photographer and first-time director Sam Jones, the film, which is scheduled for theatrical release this summer, promises to be a beautifully composed, unvarnished look at a year in the life of the band. (Check out previews at www.wilcofilm.com.)
I caught up with Tweedy this past Valentine’s Day to ask him about Wilco’s new record, folk music, the Internet, a band’s relations with its corporate patrons, the film and untutored guitar solos.
HF: Let’s start with the Mermaid Avenue records that Wilco recorded with Billy Bragg. I’m curious: How familiar were you with Woody Guthrie before you got involved with that?
JT: Well, as far back as my childhood, like most people. From “This Land Is Your Land,” and then from being a music fan for a long time and coming into that period of music in every young person’s life that is probably the most formative, or has the most impact: punk rock. The political nature of a lot of punk rock, like the Clash, along with a lot of things musically, kept leading the band I was in (Uncle Tupelo) back to more and more pure forms of music. And being interested in writing songs also led us to the same place. There’s also some connection between Black Flag and Woody Guthrie, in my opinion. In a lot of ways Woody Guthrie was more efficient. He did it with less baggage, and certainly with less anger. And I think with more conviction. He lived it more realistically, devotedly.
HF: Who were other early influences?
JT: Jay [Farrar, from Uncle Tupelo and now Son Volt] had more of a country and folk background in his family growing up. My dad had records about trains, because he worked on the railroad. And Southern Nights, by Glenn Cambell, and things like that. We were led to rockabilly. We heard something like the Stray Cats, and thought, “That’s not so bad. I bet that comes from somewhere.” Then finding Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, then from there to Sun Records to Carl Perkins and from there to deeper appreciation of Johnny Cash.