By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I want to make it clear to people that I don't see this as being unique to me or an attempt to add lyrical weight with darkness, because they weren't dark to me. Even the darkest songs--or the ones that people perceive as being dark--to me, the reason I'm moved by them or felt moved enough to sing them is that there was something beautiful about it. In other words, I don't like confessional records. I like confessions. There's a difference."
Jeff Tweedy, collaborating with Jay Bennett for the first time, wrote the record between November 1997 and August 1998, with occasional breaks. Tweedy would go off for two four-day recording sessions with his side project Golden Smog, which also features Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum, and now Jody Stephens of Big Star. The sessions resulted in last year's Weird Tales, which features five songs Tweedy either wrote or co-wrote, the best of which, "All the Same to Me," he penned with the Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks.
Wilco would also assist Billy Bragg in setting to music more than a dozen of the hundreds of lyrics Woody Guthrie left behind. Tweedy says it wasn't entirely easy making Mermaid Avenue, that he and Bragg often argued about Bragg's mixes of some of the songs Tweedy wrote and performed--though, of course, it was nothing personal, since it was Bragg's idea to bring in Tweedy and the band. As Bragg told the Dallas Observer last June, Wilco's a "rootsy American bands [whose roots] go back to before the turn of the century."
In some ways, Mermaid Avenue was a step back for Wilco: The songs were the most "country"-sounding and the most folk-tinged compositions he had written since Uncle Tupelo. It was as though Tweedy were trying to imagine Guthrie as a modern-day folk artist who would live to hear pop music and weave it into his own work. In the end, such songs as "California Stars," "Hoodoo Voodoo," and "Hesitating Beauty" would end up sounding like perfect hybrids of yesterday and tomorrow.
"Mermaid Avenue is more like Wilco than Wilco--or more like Wilco than whatever people had perceived to be Wilco," Tweedy says. "We're more of a country-rock band [on Mermaid Avenue] than on anything we'd ever done. If that would have been the first thing that Wilco had ever done, I would have understood everybody saying we were country-rock."
It's a label that has been stuck on Tweedy's head since 1990, when he and Farrar released their first Uncle Tupelo record. They had known each other since they were in high school in Belleville, Illinois, a suburb just east of St. Louis. Though they were the same age, Farrar had been in other bands before he and Tweedy began performing together. A young Jeff looked up to Jay, saw him as something of a mentor. He says now that he would never get over that initial awe.
At first, the duo--joined by drummer Mike Heidorn--were punks who turned to country because they saw it as the most outrageous thing they could do. Who else their age was performing Gang of Four songs and Carter Family material? Who among their buddies had even heard of Leadbelly? They were working-class snobs.
But as Tweedy tells it now, he never wanted to sing the few songs he originally brought to Uncle Tupelo. He wanted Farrar to sing them. But Jay wouldn't. So Jeff had to learn bass and was forced to sing the few songs of his that appear on No Depression; he says now he can't even stand to listen to his voice on that record. Tweedy's contributions would become more substantial with each record: His song "Gun" (among the best things he will ever write) opens 1991's Still Feel Gone; it was his idea to make March 16-20, 1992, a disc full of songs about coal miners and atomic energy; and his songs liven up 1993's farewell Anodyne. Indeed, that record contains one of the few Tupelo songs Tweedy still performs, the glory-hallelujah sing-along "New Madrid."
Tweedy rarely talks about the reasons behind the breakup of Uncle Tupelo. The story has always been that Farrar abruptly packed up his shit and walked away in 1994, leaving Jeff to pick up all by himself. But it wasn't that simple. To hear Tweedy talk about his relationship with Farrar five years after the bust-up is to hear a man who had grown tired of being perceived as Tupelo's weak link. Tweedy had always read the reviews talking about how he was the band's "pop" guy, the kid with the lightweight songs, while Farrar was the brooding center whose deep-dark vocals defined the band. One gets the sense that had Farrar not quit, Tweedy might well have walked.
"With March, I started playing guitar on my songs, and I could sing better and felt better about them," Tweedy says. "I felt like they were being done closer to the way I imagined them. I felt like I was getting more and more confident, and I don't feel like Jay liked that very much. He started being passive-aggressive and mean to me, and I turned a blind eye to it--like, 'This is just getting better, he's got to see that.' I really was convinced when we were touring on Anodyne that the band was growing into something much better than we'd ever imagined. But I think my involvement in Uncle Tupelo was on the verge of being dismissed."