Cult of Personality
Jeff Tweedy’s family feud with alt.country
By Phil Wise
Obsession is a funny thing. It can be as powerful as a smoking habit and as enveloping as the priesthood. It often elicits behavior as extreme as the lifetime smoker stuffing cigarette butts into his tracheal hole or a monk protesting injustice by dousing himself with gas and setting himself ablaze. Obsession can show you the way to enlightenment through discipline or mask you with blinders that block out your mania. When that obsession turns on its muse, you’ve got the makings of a stalker and they are a dangerous breed.
No Depression fans, as the group of people who love all things “alt.country” (from out of tune fiddles to overalls) are commonly called, are a rabid bunch and not to be taken lightly. They take sides. They’re more polarized than Cubs and Sox fans, Democrats and Republicans, or Sammy and Diamond Dave disciples. The most ardent of them are a proud group who revel in their cult status and the fact that they’re the only people in the world who know who Gillian Welch is. They’re not exclusionary though and welcome newbies with a zeal that rivals that of a born again Christian or Amway distributor. To join their ranks is a warm experience shared over tasty beers and homespun music. But eventually you’ll be called upon to state your allegiance and your answer will forever mark you in their yellow eyes.
It may come up at a hip party in Chicago’s Logan Square, Wicker Park having fallen from grace with the invasion of Starbucks and MTV. Or perhaps at the fantastic Hideout on Wabansia, the scene of some of the best alt.country shows in the city and host to the Bloodshot Records 5th Anniversary Block Party. You may see someone wearing a Whiskeytown shirt and strike up a conversation. You’ll both agree that former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker is genius. You’ll affably debate the merits of Lucinda William’s recently released Essence, but agree that Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was your favorite. You’ll dazzle him with your fervent love of the Outlaws and agree that Gram Parsons was not only “the shit,” but also the architect of the modern alternative country movement, with ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith garnering an honorable mention.
You’re getting along famously and promising to burn stacks of Doug Sahm and Will Oldham boots for each other when the question comes: What do you think of Summer Teeth?
This is it. The alt.country equivalent of the pro-life/pro-choice question. The division in the alt.country world is wide, insipid and sometimes violent. I’ve seen No Depressioners come to blows more than once over this album and its creators Wilco.
Hard-liners are vehement in their rejection of Wilco singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s departure from the alt.country ranks and often heckle him at solo shows, trying to incite the diminutive singer to react. He sometimes does with biting humor that always finds its way to No Depression magazine and various Wilco/Uncle Tupelo chat rooms. The verbal fencing sometimes gets ugly and often just serves to further alienate Tweedy’s wayward flock.
It wasn’t always this way
Tweedy’s first group, Uncle Tupelo, had a deeply committed fan base who reeled in disbelief upon the group’s breakup in 1994. But they took the release of Wilco’s debut A.M. (and former Uncle Tupelo co-songwriter Jay Farrar’s Trace under the Son Volt moniker) as confirmation that Tweedy would stay the course and promote their rallying cry against modern “Nashville” country and the despised pop music clogging the airwaves. They even tolerated Tweedy’s experimentation on the group’s follow-up Being There, mainly because of the soft pedal steel touches like those found on the heartbreaking “Far Far Away” or the raucous roadhouse stomp like “Dreamer of my Dreams.” But they sent warnings through bulletin boards and listservs that any more diversion would not be tolerated.
The warnings seemed to be heeded with Wilco’s work on the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with British folky and protest singer Billy Bragg. There was a return to folk arrangements and the back porch, beer-drinking gaiety Wilco perfected on A.M. It was most notably found on the breakout single from the first Mermaid Avenue with the lilting “California Stars.” The defiant Tweedy still dabbled in pop with “Hoodoo Voodoo” and “Secret of the Sea,” but for the most part followed Bragg’s lead. This may be due to the fact that Wilco was called in on the project some time after Bragg had initiated it.
Push comes to shove
Then came the release of 1998’s Summer Teeth, which cast aside all but the subtlest country influences. Awash in keyboards, kettledrums and Brian Wilson-esque arrangements, Summer Teeth stood in stark contrast to what had become the “Wilco sound,” or rather that of the insurgent country stalwarts.
Tweedy’s solo shows, which had grown considerably on the success of the Mermaid Avenue projects and Wilco’s increasing profile, also started to attract boisterous heckles from the disenchanted. The most ardent No Depressioners turned on Tweedy with shouts of “Judas!” just as Bob Dylan’s fans had with his turn to electric guitars some 30 years before. In chatrooms, bulletin boards, listservs and fans sites, Tweedy was put on trial for crimes against God and alt.country.
Compatriots in a Yankee Hotel
The alienation of Tweedy’s original fan base has done little to dissuade him from further experimentation. The heckles and attempts to pigeonhole hole him have actually done nothing to bring him back into the insurgent country fold. In fact, it may have driven him over the edge and into the arms of noise-pop vanguard Jim O’Rourke, who
produced mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s anxiously anticipated fourth album. A partnership like this likely sends chills down the spine of No Depressioners as they imagine an album devoid of song structure and brimming with buzzes, whistles and pops.
But they might be surprised when (and if) they hear the album when it (and if) finally comes out. While it’s by no means a return to Wilco’s simple country-rock beginnings, it does have more of the elements that put Tweedy and Co. on the map: beautiful violins, subtle pedal steel and stark acoustic accompaniment. It remains to be seen whether this new album will win back those O.T.’s (Original Tweedy-heads), but they’d be doing themselves a favor by dropping their criteria and listening to the music. It beats a restraining order and 200 hours of community service.