Jeff Tweedy No Alt-Country for Old Men
Published Jul 17, 2017Though his melancholic lyrics may say otherwise, Jeff Tweedy is a man who can't sit still. Over the last three decades, he pioneered the alt-country movement with Uncle Tupelo after juxtaposing punk sensibilities with a country palette before leaving for more experimental, rock and folk with Wilco (not to mention side projects Loose Fur, Golden Smog and Tweedy), even landing a spot on Barack Obama's coveted iPod.
But his lyrics and interviews over the last several decades paint a portrait of a man grappling with depression, panic disorder and migraines, and struggling with companionship, engaging in heated conflict with his closest collaborators both in and out of the band. Tweedy's career has been a rollercoaster through interpersonal and melodic ups and downs, but his inimitable style has nevertheless been an anchor to which many later folk and rock bands would tether themselves.
Not only has he grown up from raucous punk to wizened family man (or, as some would say to Tweedy's chagrin, "dad rocker") before the world's very eyes, but he has also proven a crucial figure in the world of label politicking and music streaming, a one-man parable for the changing tides of a music industry in flux.
1967 to 1980
Jeffrey Scot Tweedy is born in Belleville, Illinois on August 25, 1967. The youngest of four children, he grows up listening to his siblings' leftover records, idolizing bands like the Beatles and Cheap Trick. At the tender age of six, Tweedy's mother buys him his first guitar, but he rarely plays — though he tells his peers that he can.
When Tweedy is 12, he gets into a bicycle accident, and his right leg is impaled by a steel bar from an unfinished drainage pipe — in a 2013 interview with Chicago Magazine, he claims he still has no feeling in his right thigh as a result of the crash. He spends the whole summer bedridden, recovering, and teaches himself to play guitar to pass the time.
1981 to 1987
Tweedy attends high school at Belleville Township High School West, where he meets Jay Farrar in English class. The two bond during an icebreaker activity in which they discuss their favourite bands — Tweedy says Ramones, while Farrar says Sex Pistols. In Greg Kot's 2004 biography Wilco: Learning How to Die, Farrar will say, "It's like the two visitors from Mars, as far as everyone else was concerned," he recalls. "We felt like the only two people listening to that type of music."
Shortly thereafter, Tweedy joins Farrar and the latter's brothers Wade and Dade in their band the Plebes. Tensions between Tweedy and Dade over the band's direction — Tweedy wants to move toward punk, as opposed to the group's rockabilly stylings — result in Dade leaving the group. Mike Heidorn joins on as drummer, and the new quartet rename themselves the Primitives. The group become a mainstay in the Belleville area at parties and events, playing mostly covers of '60s garage rock songs.
1987 to 1989
Lead singer Wade leaves the group and, after several failed attempts to find a new fourth member, the band settle on a three-piece lineup: Farrar as lead singer and guitarist, Tweedy on backup vocals and bass, and Heidorn on drums. After learning of a band called the Primitives in the UK, the group change their name to Uncle Tupelo after a friend's drawing, and practice upstairs from a local cabinet shop. The newly christened group add more original tunes to the mix, introducing country leanings — as influenced by Neil Young and Doug Sahm — to their punk sound.
Uncle Tupelo record demo tape Colorblind and Rhymeless in 1987 that earns them stage time opening for the likes of Warren Zevon and Johnny Thunders, and some coveted headliner slots in nearby St. Louis. Two more demo tapes, Live and Otherwise and Not Forever, Just For Now, follow, all of which are experiments in mixing punk and country. Many ideas from these tapes will find homes in later releases.
During a trip to a St. Louis record store, Tweedy befriends manager Tony Margherita, who becomes Uncle Tupelo's manager. Margherita is instrumental in helping the band get shows outside of St. Louis and distributing tapes to labels (and purchasing a van that will last). Margherita still works with Tweedy to this day as manager of Wilco and assorted side-projects.
The tapes gain the attention of New York-based Giant Records — later Rockville Records — who help earn the band a coveted slot at the CMJ Music Conference in October 1989. The band earn the honour of "Best Unsigned Band," and sign to the label shortly thereafter. Farrar and Tweedy drop out of college; though Tweedy spent three years enrolled in college, attending Belleville Area College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, he will tell The New York Times in 2009, "I don't think I have enough credits to claim myself as a first-semester freshman" due to his all-encompassing musical pursuits.
Tweedy continues, "I worked in a record store when I was growing up, and I could have seen myself doing that if I wasn't able to make a living playing music. But, no, I really rolled the dice. I did not have a fallback position. I had one egg in my basket."
1990 to 1991
The trio decamp to Boston to record their first album with Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, choosing the duo due to their work on Dinosaur Jr.'s Bug. During recording, Farrar uses the same Gibson Les Paul guitar that Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis used on Bug. They title the record No Depression after a Carter Family song, and it is released on Rockville on June 21, 1990.
Thanks to the record's blend of punk rock and country, the album receives accolades from publications like St. Louis alt-weekly Riverfront Times and Rolling Stone, selling 150,000 copies within its first year. Though the band will initially see no royalties from the record, a 2000 lawsuit will rectify all that, reuniting the band with their hard-earned money and rights to the masters.
In the coming years, No Depression becomes shorthand for the emergent genres of alternative country, which will spawn influential acts like Ryan Adams' Whiskeytown and Drive-By Truckers — in 1995, writers Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock start a quarterly publication about folk, country and roots, and call it No Depression, which remains active. In 2014, Exclaim!'s Stuart Henderson will call the album "the most influential non-hip-hop record of the early '90s."
In between tours, Tweedy, Farrar and Heidorn blow off steam in cover band Coffee Creek with friend Brian Henneman, formerly of Chicken Truck, with whom Uncle Tupelo often shared a bill. When about to embark on another tour, they recruit Henneman to tag along as a guitar tech, who occasionally joins the band during encores.
Since childhood, Tweedy has been plagued by migraines, aggravated by depression and panic disorder. "When I was a kid, I used to throw up 30 times in a night and get put in the hospital for dehydration," Tweedy will reveal to filmmaker Sam Jones in 2002. While on tour with Uncle Tupelo, he fends them off with sugar and booze, assuming the role as the band's de facto party animal. Around this time, Tweedy begins dating Sue Miller, owner of legendary Chicago venue Lounge Ax, and quits drinking shortly thereafter. "I knew there was a family history of [alcoholism], and it was something that scared me," Tweedy will say to the Chicago Reader's Bob Mehr in 2004.
To continue building off their burgeoning popularity, the band quickly record follow-up Still Feel Gone. Though Farrar had been principal songwriter up until this point, Still Feel Gone features the first of his more serious material. A four-star Rolling Stone review praises Farrar and Tweedy's duality. Critic Chris Mundy states, "While Tweedy sings with a pop-perfect boyish lilt, Farrar's powerful rasp sounds like he's been gargling with Wild Turkey since puberty. The balance of innocence and hard-edged rawness helps give Uncle Tupelo an emotional range reminiscent of the glory days of Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould and Grant Hart."
By this point, Tweedy has also emerged as the band's spokesman. In 2007, Tweedy will tell The A.V. Club's Noel Murray, "Jay's just so socially awkward that it was by default that it fell on my shoulders to talk. It was so painfully uncomfortable to be in a room with him, for me at least. Jay and I are just so different. He sort of appeared to be comfortable with making people uncomfortable by not saying very much. I could never be that way. So I always spoke up. I answered the questions. I got tired of waiting, most of the time."
The band take REM guitarist Peter Buck up on his offer to record Uncle Tupelo; Buck had become a fan after attending an Uncle Tupelo show in Athens, Georgia in 1990. The sessions become March 16–20, 1992, the band's third LP, so named after the five days the band spent recording at Buck's home studio in Athens, GA.
Despite the rise of alternative rock, Uncle Tupelo decide instead to record a fully acoustic album split evenly between originals and covers of traditional tunes. Nevertheless, the album attracts major label attention, and sells more copies than No Depression and Still Feel Gone combined.
The band are frustrated by Rockville's incompetence in paying royalties, and their popularity lead them to be pursued by Sire Records, the Warner Brothers-owned home of Depeche Mode, the Ramones and Talking Heads, to whom the band sign.
Shortly thereafter, Heidorn leaves the band to be with his new wife and her two kids from a previous marriage, and is replaced by Bill Beizer. Later that year, the band join American singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked on tour for her album Arkansas Traveller — the band had appeared on the album accompanying her on track "Shaking Hands (Soldier's Boy)." The tour includes the Band and Taj Mahal, however, the Band are fired the tour several shows in after refusing to participate in the closing number. Uncle Tupelo depart soon after.
Speaking with Eric Puls for the Chicago Sun-Times after leaving the tour, Tweedy would presciently state, "Getting to play long acoustic sets was a change for us. The auditoriums we were in had great acoustics and the audiences were very quiet, very attentive, and that was a cool change from our usual crowd."
After only six months in the band, Beizer leaves and is replaced by Ken Coomer. The band also welcomes live violinist Max Johnston, Shocked's younger brother, whom the band had met on the Arkansas Traveler tour. Henneman leaves to focus on his band the Bottle Rockets, though the Rockets and Tupelo continue to play shows together. Henneman is replaced by John Stirratt, who later takes over bass duties full-time, which allows Tweedy to focus on rhythm guitar.
With the expanded lineup, tensions continue to flare between Tweedy and Farrar, and Farrar's uncompromising nature rubs the rest of the band the wrong way.
1993 to 1994
In early 1993, the band head to Cedar Creek studio in Austin, TX to record their major label debut, Anodyne. The new lineup finds Tweedy more liberated, which increases tensions between him and Farrar. Despite the $150,000 budget — over six times the budgets of the first three records combined — the band pick Cedar Creek because it "just seemed really kind of homey and small and cheap," they tell Times Union's Parry Gettelman in 1994, and they record each song live off the floor in a single take without overdubs, at Farrar's request. The album also features major influence Doug Sahm, who sings lead on Tupelo's cover of Sahm's own "Give Back the Keys to My Heart."
Shortly after Anodyne's release, Farrar announces his impending departure the band, citing long-simmering tensions with Tweedy as the main reason. "It just seemed like it reached a point where Jeff and I really weren't compatible," Farrar will say to Blackstock in the No Depression quarterly's debut issue. "It had ceased to be a symbiotic songwriting relationship, probably after the first record."
Uncle Tupelo go on one final tour together; while the band seem peaceful at first, it's only a matter of weeks before Farrar and Tweedy are fighting again. It doesn't help that the band perform Tweedy's track "The Long Cut" on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, which only increases Farrar's jealousy. The tour concludes in St. Louis on May 1, 1994, and the childhood friends part ways following the show.
1994 to 1995
Days after their final show, Tweedy and the remaining Uncle Tupelo lineup start their rehearsals as a new band, which they quickly dub Wilco. Shortly after forming, Wilco sign to Reprise Records, a Warner Bros. subsidiary. Teaming back up with Henneman, they quickly record and release A.M., which largely retains Uncle Tupelo's alt-country sound. The record fares far poorer than Son Volt's debut, Trace, which is released six months later on Warner Bros. itself.
The band largely blame A.M.'s failure on their unwillingness to move past the success of Uncle Tupelo. "I was so in love with where Uncle Tupelo was, I wanted to keep that audience, I didn't want things to change," Tweedy will tell Uncut's John Mulvey in 2014. "But then I realized I don't have any control over things changing. Even if I tried to make the record everybody wanted me to make, they were going to hate it."
Dan Murphy, of alt-rockers Soul Asylum, invites Tweedy to join supergroup Golden Smog, which Murphy and a rotating cast of musicians had been using since 1987 as a vessel for ideas and songs that wouldn't work in their other projects. Tweedy, credited as "Scott Summit," contributes three songs. He will later contribute to 1998's Weird Tales and 2006's Another Fine Day.
With Henneman unable to commit to the band due to his duties with the Bottle Rockets, Wilco are introduced to multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who becomes the band's first keyboardist. Tweedy and Miller settle in Chicago and are married in August 1995; they welcome the birth of their first son, Spencer, in December.
During their A.M. supporting tour, Tweedy begins writing material for what will become Being There, Wilco's sophomore album, originally envisioned as a concept album about how rock'n'roll has lost its lustre. "Rock & roll had been this huge thing in my life and I was coming to terms with the idea that it's not that important," Tweedy will tell Rolling Stone shortly after the album's release. "It's not the end of the world if it goes away."
Bennett proves instantly influential to the band's sound, but also results in Johnston leaving the band; he is replaced by pedal steel guitarist Bob Egan, who appears as a guest on Being There. Due to the large amount of recorded material, the band decided to release a double album, which also serves as an homage to the double-LP trend of the '70s. Tweedy's insistence that Reprise sell the record at single-LP price results in Wilco negotiating away their share of royalties to recoup the cost.
Opening track "Misunderstood" makes it abundantly clear that Tweedy's Uncle Tupelo dreams are over, as the plaintive track explodes into raucous fury over the shouted lyric "I'd like to thank you all for nothing." The 19-track album receives accolades for its ambitious mix of psychedelia, folk and rock, earning comparisons to London Calling and Exile on Main St.
Despite the band not aiming for a hit single, the track "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" becomes Wilco's first to enter the Billboard charts, topping out at #39 on the Modern Rock chart and #22 on Mainstream Rock.
1997 to 1999
During a European tour for Being There, Tweedy begins writing songs for the band's third album, Summerteeth, while his panic attacks worsen. His relationships with his wife and bandmates are strained, though the performances provide some catharsis.
Wilco are contacted by British folk punk Billy Bragg about setting unarranged lyrics by late American folk legend Woody Guthrie to music. Bragg had been contacted by Guthrie's daughter, Nora, about putting her father's words to music; finding it only fitting to team up with an American band, Bragg chooses Wilco, having met Uncle Tupelo on the road years earlier. In a 1998 interview with The A.V. Club, Bragg says, "Wilco are just so American, in a Midwest sense. Their Americanness just comes out on their records."
Tweedy is initially indifferent to Bragg's offer, and the band head off to Willie Nelson's studio in Spicewood, TX instead to begin recording their third LP. Following the sessions, the band are ultimately spurred to accept Bragg's offer by superfan Bennett, whose former band Titanic Love Affair was named after a Bragg lyric.
The collaborators are given boxes with thousands of sets of lyrics inside, and independently choose which lyrics to turn into songs. Bragg and Wilco don't always see eye to eye, with Bragg embracing Guthrie's more political material as opposed to Wilco's more apolitical leanings. Nevertheless, the team power through a series of successful recording sessions. Mermaid Avenue, named after both a song of Guthrie's and his family home, is released to critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination. Bragg and Wilco are unable to come to an agreement about an upcoming tour, which never comes to fruition.
After Mermaid Avenue is released, the band return to Spicewood to finish Summerteeth. During recording, Bennett and Tweedy develop what Tweedy calls "kitchen-sink mixes," including every possible idea at once and systematically removing them until the final product remains — a sharp contrast from Uncle Tupelo's overdub-free ethos.
Bennett's role in the band continues to increase as he becomes more involved in production. Bennett joins Tweedy in taking over creative leadership of the band; during this time, they become notorious for recreationally taking prescription pills during production. "They were very isolated then and starting to get into bad habits together," bassist John Stirratt will tell Chicago Times' Bob Mehr in 2004. "They were not fun to be around." During the hectic stretch of touring, Tweedy stops using.
While Being There covered eclectic musical ground, Summerteeth packs disparate instrumentation into single songs, turning each into an epic, orchestrated jam, with Bennett's myriad synth textures colouring the entire album, alongside Beach Boys-esque harmonies. Lyrically denser and darker than Tweedy's earlier work, the album is a glimpse at an artist on the brink of a breakdown — his increasing dependence on drugs ("A Shot in the Arm"), marital troubles ("She's a Jar") and depression ("How to Fight Loneliness") set to sprawling instrumentation.
Though Warner — Reprise's parent company — largely gave the band creative control over the album due to the success of Being There, recent financial struggles as a result of Warner's merger with Time Inc. lead to the label demanding a hit single after hearing what was supposed to be the final version of the record. A quick remix leads to a radio-friendly version of album opener "Can't Stand It" but the track fails to chart in the U.S., increasing frustrations with Reprise. Despite rave reviews by the likes of AllMusic and Pitchfork, the album fails to sell as well as Being There, disappointing band and label alike.
The band purchase the Loft, a 44,000 square foot studio space on Chicago's Northwest Side. They also hire Bennett's college friend Leroy Bach as a touring instrumentalist to help execute the complex new tracks, replacing Egan, who acrimoniously jumps ship to join Bragg's touring band.
On a European tour, Tweedy begins drinking again and suffering harsher anxiety attacks, and comes to a realization about the toxicity of his relationship with Bennett. "Long story short," Tweedy will tell Greg Kot, "Jay was happiest in the band when I was the least coherent."
The band return to Chicago to record more Guthrie material with Bragg. The resulting Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2 is released in 2000. "I don't think of it as a sequel," Bragg tells Exclaim! "This second album is a bit darker than the first one; we've been able to ask, 'What haven't we shown you that we know of Woody?'" Vol. 2 fails to make the same impact as the original. Yet despite Wilco's exhaustion, the sessions are so productive that a third collection of material, Vol. 3, will be released in 2012 in conjunction with box set Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions.
Days before Y2K, Miller gives birth to Tweedy's second son, Sam. A few weeks later, the Lounge Ax closes down after the building is bought by an investment banker, who evicts all the tenants. Tweedy performs in the space several times in the venue's final weeks, including a solo acoustic set, as part of a tribute concert to Doug Sahm (who'd passed away in mid-November), and for one final headlining set with Wilco.
2000 to 2003
In May 2000, Tweedy is approached by Chicago music festival Noise Pop to perform with a collaborator of his choosing. He picks local experimentalist Jim O'Rourke, citing a love of his 1997 instrumental record Bad Timing. Tweedy would later tell the Chicago Tribune, "[Bad Timing] ended up blowing my mind more than just about any record I'd heard in the last five years. The patience of the arrangements really appealed to me, the idea that it's not about how fast you get from Point A to Point B, but savouring every second of the journey."
After their first session, O'Rourke invites drummer Glenn Kotche to the rehearsals, where he easily meshes with the pair. "Glenn was bringing an unbelievable sensitivity and musicality," Tweedy will say to the Tribune. "He was steering the ship on those songs." The trio name themselves Loose Fur and, following the Noise Pop performance, head into the studio for a few days to record their material. Due to members' preoccupation with their other works, the recordings won't see the light of day until 2003, when the group's self-titled debut will be released by Drag City, O'Rourke's longtime recording home.
Following the Loose Fur sessions, Tweedy returns to the studio with Wilco to begin recording their fourth album. As with Summerteeth, the band assume production duties, but this time they record in the Loft. Tweedy is largely dissatisfied by the results, and the pressure to create a magnum opus after Summerteeth's lack of commercial success begins to get to him. "I think every record that I've ever made, somebody has said, 'This is the big one. You guys are gonna be huge.' And when I saw the reality of the situation, I felt a little dumb for believing it," he tells filmmaker Sam Jones.
Emboldened by the ease of the Loose Fur rehearsals, Tweedy invites Kotche to fill in for drummer Coomer — who is later unceremoniously fired via a phone call — and Kotche becomes a full-fledged member of the band.
Kotche's presence reinvigorates the band. "Glenn made the songs happen," Bennett says in an interview with Greg Kot. "He could do what was asked of him and brought good ideas to the table." But problems are far from over. Bennett, who's been recording and mixing, argues with Tweedy over a crucial transition between songs "Ashes of American Flags" and "Heavy Metal Drummer," which highlights an irreparable rift between the pair.
"Jeff is a vinyl-record fan living in a CD age," Bennett will tell Kot. "He saw records in terms of how songs were sequenced and how they fit together, whereas that didn't matter nearly as much to me."
Tweedy again turns to his Loose Fur bandmates to rectify his problems with Wilco, this time convincing O'Rourke to take over mixing. After spending three days on album opener "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," his work impresses the band, including Bennett. "It was a freaky, fucked-up song, and he made sense out of it," he tells Kot. "He did a good job." O'Rourke is then tasked with mixing the entire record, even adding instrumentation to various tracks.
O'Rourke is credited for bringing the album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to life. "When I go back and listen to the record before Jim got a hold of it, I realized it was Summerteeth 2," says Stirratt. "We had a chance to make a complete departure from that, and Jim helped us do it." However, Reprise has undergone several major personnel changes; new personnel reject the album. Instead of making changes to comply with the label's desires, Wilco decide to leave the label, and Reprise allow them to take the album's masters with them at no cost.
While the band shop around for a new label, Tweedy — on behalf of the rest of the band — fires Bennett, citing his unsuccessful attempt at mixing the album as the final straw. Despite Tweedy delivering an in-person dismissal, no one has given a specific reason for the firing. "I'm not sure I ever got an answer that made any sense," Bennett tells filmmaker Sam Jones. "Jeff went into this big long analogy about how a circle needs a centre. He was gonna be the centre, I wasn't gonna be the centre."
The ordeal is chronicled in Jones's 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, and Bennett's portrayal furthers tensions between him and Tweedy. It doesn't help that Tweedy is on-camera as saying, about the firing, "As far as my feelings about it, I couldn't be happier" with a giggle. The two never reconcile; Bennett will go on to release five solo records before dying of a fentanyl overdose in 2009 at age 45.
During their label-less purgatory, the band join up with R.E.M. associate Scott McCaughey and his Minus 5 project, acting as McCaughey's backing band for a new Minus 5 album. The morning of their first rehearsal is September 11, 2001.
The quintet record Down with Wilco, which will be released in 2003. An EP of outtakes, At the Organ, will follow in 2004. The recording sessions give the band some cathartic release after being dropped by their label, and also introduces the group to engineer Mikael Jorgensen, who joins Wilco as a multi-instrumentalist shortly after.
The band make an unprecedented move with their unreleased album — the one their label felt was "unreleaseable." They stream Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on their website for free. When fans flood subsequent shows already familiar with the material, it impresses various labels scouting the band.
After being courted by dozens of other labels, the band sign with Nonesuch, a label that ironically shares a parent company with Reprise, who dropped them: Time Warner. Since they were released by Reprise and allowed to keep the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot masters, then were paid an advance for the completed album by Nonesuch, Time Warner has effectively paid for the album twice.
Upon its release in April, 2002, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is met with critical and commercial acclaim, peaking at #13 on Billboard and receiving a rare perfect score from Pitchfork, who deem the album "simply a masterpiece." It remains Wilco's best-selling album.
2004 to 2005
During two years of touring Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy becomes increasingly beset by his migraines. He turns to meticulous guitar practice to occupy his time and, without Bennett in the band, his spasmodic, free-jazz tendencies emerge. When the band begin recording with O'Rourke in New York City, Tweedy is confident enough to handle lead guitar duties for the first time.
A Ghost is Born is the band's most experimental album, including Tweedy's raucous guitar solos, extended Krautrock jams, a ten-minute long drone to resemble one of Tweedy's migraines and, in somewhat of a "fuck you" to their hit-seeking former label, a two-and-a-half minute pop song.
Leroy Bach leaves the band shortly after recording and is replaced by multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone — Stirratt's partner in side project the Autumn Defense — and experimental guitarist Nels Cline; 13 years later, this lineup remains intact.
Wracked by daily migraines and anxiety attacks, Tweedy returns to prescription painkillers, to which he becomes addicted. After quitting cold turkey, he is hospitalized and sent to a rehab clinic, which leads to the cancellation of a European tour and a two-week delay in releasing the album. After multiple stints, Tweedy emerges clean and ready to unveil the new album and lineup.
When the album is eventually released in June, 2004, its success rivals Foxtrot, reaching number 8 on Billboard and selling 81,000 copies in its first week. The album earns the band their first Grammy Awards, for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Recording Package. The following year, the new six-piece is featured on two-hour live CD, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago. Tweedy also releases his first book of poetry, Adult Head, which is critically panned.
2006 to 2008
In 2006, Loose Fur release Born Again in the USA. Tweedy embarks on a solo tour of the Pacific Northwest, performing acoustic renditions of songs from his back catalogue, with occasional appearances by Kotche and Cline. Nonesuch release a live DVD, Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest, in October.
The six-piece Wilco lineup make their studio debut on 2007's Sky Blue Sky. It highlights a more grassroots approach, returning to the Loft and featuring minimal overdubs and involvement by O'Rourke, leading to a more relaxed sound. Cline's masterful guitar work takes centre stage.
Tweedy attributes the record's melancholia to the passing of his mother, who died during recording. He'll tell Rolling Stone in 2009 that "[Sky Blue Sky] was set up to be the first record since I had gone through rehab. And then my mom died, and suddenly I wasn't really healthy. There's nothing really distinguishable between depression and mourning. Physiologically I think they're the same. So Sky Blue Sky kind of got finished with that in mind. On this record, I was about as healthy as I've ever been from beginning to end."
In reviews for the album, the band are labelled "dad rock" for the first time. Though Tweedy's initial reaction is negative — in a 2014 interview with Esquire, Tweedy reveals that he found the label "unflattering and hurtful" — but later changes his tune, telling Men's Health in 2011 that he "recently had a revelation about it: When people say dad rock, they actually just mean rock. I don't find anything undignified about being a dad or being rocking, you know? If I picture what playing well into my 60s or 70s would look like, it would be more like John Prine or Leonard Cohen — people who have been allowed to grow old. The Rolling Stones haven't been allowed to grow old. Their fans demand that they continue to live up to that spectacle all the time. But they're all freaks of nature, you know?"
Though critics are divided on the band's new direction, it debuts at #4 on Billboard and receives a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album; they lose to Foo Fighters.
2009 to 2010
In January 2009, the band set off to record with Crowded House's Neil Finn at his studio in Auckland, New Zealand. The album, dubbed Wilco (The Album), is the first Wilco full-length recorded with the same lineup as its predecessor. Fittingly, it kicks off with "Wilco (The Song)," a pledge by the band to provide comfort when times are tough.
The album features a duet with Canadian indie star Feist, whom the band met at the 2008 Grammy Awards; "You and I" becomes Wilco (The Album)'s centrepiece, though not after attracting the ire of Wilco fans, who bemoan the band releasing a "pop song." In a 2009 interview with The A.V. Club, Tweedy says "We literally put 15 minutes of noise on a record that did not raise an eyebrow, but if you make a pop song with Feist on it, people are going to cry like the sky's falling. Our goal is to make some shit that we fucking like to play and feel good about."
When the album leaks online six weeks before release date, Wilco stream the album on their website and ask those who downloaded it to donate to a Chicago-based charity that supports low-income families. As with its immediate predecessor, reviews are largely positive — Exclaim! calls it "a swell ride through the many moods of a band going for pop craftsmanship like never before" — and the album reaches #4 on Billboard.
Wilco superfan Chad Comfort opens up a sandwich shop in Toronto named Sky Blue Sky; every sandwich on the menu is named after a Wilco song. Upon visiting the restaurant in 2011, Tweedy snarks, "Lunch was really good, but, to be honest, I prefer their earlier, more experimental sandwiches."
The band enter the growing music festival market with the Solid Sound Festival, taking place at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in the state's least populous city, North Adams (an hour east of Albany). The inaugural lineup includes Wilco and side projects the Nels Cline Singers, the Autumn Defense, Jorgensen's band Pronto and even a Tweedy solo set, alongside non-Wilco acts like Mavis Staples, Vetiver and Avi Buffalo. The festival is still active, now running every other year; it's the subject of 2015 documentary Every Other Summer.
Tweedy also produces and writes tracks on Mavis Staples' 2010 album, You Are Not Alone, which takes home the Grammy for Best Americana Album — Staples' first, at age 71.
2011 to 2014
Since the release of Wilco (The Album) completes Wilco's contract with Nonesuch, instead of pursuing a new record deal, they start a label instead, opening dBpm Records out of Margherita's offices in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The label has so far only put out records by Wilco and assorted Tweedy side projects.
dBpm's first release is Wilco's eighth album, The Whole Love, in September, 2011. Contrary to Wilco (The Album)'s straightforward folk rock, The Whole Love showcases Wilco's more experimental side, opening with seven-minute prog jam "Art of Almost." The album puts Wilco back in the Best Rock Album category at the Grammys, where they once again lose to the Foo Fighters.
A month after The Whole Love is released, Tweedy reveals a side project, the Raccoonists, composed of Tweedy and sons Spencer and Sam, now 15 and 11. The family band's sole release is a track on a split single with Deerhoof — but though the band itself disappears, it heralds a strong start what would become a series of father-son collaborations.
While Wilco take a break, Tweedy tackles production work in the Loft. He produces slowcore outfit Low's tenth album, The Invisible Way and another album by Mavis Staples, 2013's One True Vine. Tweedy plays most of the instruments on One True Vine with one exception — drums, which are handled by older son Spencer. Though the elder Tweedy had begun plans to record a solo album, he decides to let his son in on the action. The two formally team up, naming their band Tweedy. In a statement, Jeff calls the album "a solo album performed by a duo." During live performances, he jokes, "It took me 18 years to have a solo record because I had to grow a drummer."
During the recording of the Tweedy album, Sue Miller is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Undeterred, father and son use the record as a coping mechanism, and refuse to let the situation mar the upbeat tone of the record. "I didn't want the album to sound like a premature eulogy, and working with my son was a great experience," Tweedy tells Rolling Stone's David Marchese. The record is titled Sukierae after one of Sue's many nicknames. By the end of 2014, the Tweedys learn that Sue's cancer is in remission.
During 2014, Tweedy also makes a pair of appearances on popular television shows: on Portlandia, he plays himself in a sketch about the authenticity of folk music; on Parks and Rec, he plays the former frontman of a legendary rock band who is courted by the main characters regarding a potential reunion.
The band celebrate their 20th anniversary with 2014 best-of collection What's Your 20?, featuring tracks from all Wilco LPs including Mermaid Avenue, and rarities set Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994–2014.
2015 to 2017
Tweedy and Staples reunite to complete an unfinished Pops Staples album, Don't Lose This, using 1999 recordings by the gospel legend.
Wilco surprise release their ninth album, Star Wars, as a free download. "I was really dreading the modern rollout pattern," Tweedy says. "Usually, by the time the record comes out, I hate it."
The album was not named out of devotion for the iconic science fiction franchise — to Rolling Stone, Tweedy would muse, "I didn't know there was a new Star Wars movie coming out until my lawyer told me" — but instead after a reflection on Tweedy's positive mental attitude, commenting that the phrase "just makes me feel good. It makes me feel limitless and like there are still possibilities and still surprise in the world, you know?" Fittingly enough, the album finds Wilco at their loosest and most carefree.
The next year, the band pursue a more traditional release for their tenth album, Schmilco, which pairs Star Wars' carefree nature with the softer folk of Wilco's early albums.
In 2017, Tweedy releases his first-ever solo album, Together at Last, through dBpm. Much like Tweedy's intermittent solo tours, the album features stripped-down acoustic versions of Wilco, Loose Fur and Golden Smog tracks.
The Essential Jeff Tweedy
A.M. was just Uncle Tupelo sans Farrar, but Being There marked Tweedy's coming out party where he began the transformation into the wry, emotive frontman we know and love. Whether consumed as two self-contained discs or the full, 80-minute love letter to '70s-era double LPs that stands among the best of the best, Being There is Wilco's most rocking record.
Marking the apex of Tweedy and Bennett's collaboration, Summerteeth is the closest Wilco has ever gotten to pop, with a Beach Boys-inspired "kitchen sink" approach that boasts the band's sprightliest, most psychedelic tracks. It also features some of Tweedy's most arresting and vividly morose lyrics, jarringly placed behind arena rock sing-alongs.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
An album so nice Warner paid for it twice, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is Wilco at its best and most dizzying, so much so that it threatened to tear the band apart with interpersonal conflict and drama with original label Reprise. String-addled country, thumping rock and sparse ballads are placed behind layers of noise and electronics for a storied, stellar listen — as Reprise proved, this record isn't for everyone, but the rewards are ample.