For Wilco Leader Jeff Tweedy, Success Bears a Moral Responsibility

Jeff Tweedy's spent 20 years in Wilco, and had a whole musical life before that.
Jeff Tweedy's spent 20 years in Wilco, and had a whole musical life before that. Alexa Viscius
Acclaimed American rock band Wilco announced recently it would soon play some concerts to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its storied 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Often an anniversary sneaks up on us, surprising us at how quickly time has elapsed since a significant event, but that’s not really the case for Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy.

“Honestly, it seems like that was a longer time ago to me,” Tweedy says with a chuckle.

It’s understandable that the past two decades may feel longer than that for Tweedy. Along with a reliably consistent touring schedule as his main band became a bona fide festival headliner, Tweedy’s had a prolific studio presence. He’s performing a solo acoustic concert at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas on March 5.

Since the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002, he’s released well over a dozen albums of music from Wilco, as a solo artist, as the leader of family trio Tweedy, and as a member of indie-rock supergroup Golden Smog and Loose Fur, yet another Wilco-adjacent side project.

Remarkably, the past 18 years have witnessed the most stable formation of Wilco, with that same timeframe being their most sonically adventurous era. Since 2004’s A Ghost is Born, the group hasn’t undergone any dramatic turnover in its lineup, which had been a fairly regular occurrence before that year, which was also when Tweedy received treatment for his addiction to prescription painkillers.

It would be unsurprising for Tweedy to look back on the recording of the Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born through a bleak lens, perhaps even purposely avoiding memories of those days, but his perspective now is far sunnier.

“You know, just getting healthy back then was one of the things that was really enlightening and helpful for me and my life,” he says. “I was a very different person during the time when we made that record compared to when I came out of the hospital. I did question whether the songs from that time would themselves be triggers for a certain type of mindset or a different version of myself, but what I discovered was really uplifting, because I feel like I discovered the better part of me was always the part of me that was intact enough to write. It was like that was the only healthy side of my life then.”

Tweedy isn’t the only Wilco member with artistic pursuits outside of the band. Perhaps a younger band would rip up from the collective insecurity, but at this stage in the lives of each Wilco musician, ranging in age from 49 to 66, the security that comes with maturity and running a side gig might be the secret to the band’s impressive streak of stability.

“For me, there isn’t a lot of concern that some musical magic is going to be misspent somewhere outside the band,” Tweedy says. “I actually have the opposite philosophy in that any time you spend playing your instrument with other people makes you better and more inspired. I think having other outlets has been a safety valve for everybody.”

"I think that almost all bands get back together when they break up at some point, and what generally pulls them together isn’t just money. The music has woven itself into a sizable group of people’s lives, and that’s a fucking real thing." –Jeff Tweedy

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Going back even further than 20 years, Tweedy was once one of the leaders of alt-country trailblazers Uncle Tupelo. The twangy, punk-forward band he formed with his high school mate Jay Farrar in 1987 broke up in 1994, leading Farrar to form influential group Son Volt, and Tweedy to start Wilco.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that Tweedy’s current view on how a band should conduct itself has evolved over the years and has been informed by the recent Wilco success, as much as by the tumultuous split with Farrar almost 30 years ago. In a 2020 interview with Esquire, he says he isn’t sure how long Wilco will last, but also that he “doesn't believe in bands breaking up.” It’s certainly an intriguing take from a man involved in one of Americana music’s most storied band breakups.

“I’m just skeptical,” he says generally about a band breakups. “I don’t trust it. I think that almost all bands get back together when they break up at some point, and what generally pulls them together isn’t just money. The music has woven itself into a sizable group of people’s lives, and that’s a fucking real thing. And it’s a rarity for anybody that’s ever walked this planet to be able to complete that circuit of joy for a number of people just by playing a stupid song, and to deny that is almost immoral.”

But what about Uncle Tupelo’s breakup? For decades loyal roots-rock fans have lamented the fact Tweedy and Farrar ever split to begin with.

“I think maybe there’s an element of my belief now that’s connected to that [Uncle Tupelo breakup],” he says. “I do think that when there’s no choice really, then maybe the honorable thing to do is to not damage the memory of the band.”

A healthy appreciation for life experience and what he has learned from it seems to come easily for Tweedy these days. Before Wilco broke through commercially with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, things certainly weren’t as comfortable for Tweedy and crew as they are now, but again, memories of those days seem to only strengthen his appreciation for the well-being his band enjoys in the present.

“It’s a good thing to be a part of,” he says. “I think we all feel grateful and we enjoy it. We get to tour in a way that’s pretty comfortable compared to our early days when the wear and tear of being in a van at all hours behind the wheel keeps you from taking better care of yourself. What’s left now is the idea that you get to be friends with some guys and have an intimate connection with people over a long period of time that you also get to play music with. When you look at it like that, there isn’t a lot of downside.”
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Kelly Dearmore