It’s been over a year since we’ve heard anything new from Wilco, but frontman Jeff Tweedy has a knack for finding other ways to keep his name in the news. The Chicago-bred singer-songwriter is currently preparing for the third Solid Sound Festival, set to touch down at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this June, with performances by Neko Case, Yo La Tengo, Reggie Watts, and more. He’s also kept busy by handling production on Low’s tenth studio LP, The Invisible Way, which hit stores earlier this week. Quality aside, it serves as the latest reminder that Tweedy’s never intended for his legacy to begin and end with Wilco. For further evidence, we’ve compiled a list of Tweedy’s proudest career works not to come from his main gig.
Photography by Heather Kaplan.
15. “Hey Chicken” – Loose Fur
Born Again in the U.S.A., 2006
Jeff Tweedy’s Loose Fur project came together shortly after the release of Wilco’s 1999 LP Summerteeth, when he got a one-off opportunity to collaborate with Jim O’Rourke, who would introduce him to his friend Glenn Kotche. They eventually became the two other key players of Wilco’s avant-garde years during the front half of the aughts, after they discovered the range of sonic ground they covered as a trio. “Hey Chicken”, the leadoff track on their second of two albums, is a prime example of the teeth that Loose Fur could bring when they weren’t indulging in nine-minute structured tweakouts or muffled epics.
14. “The Family Gardener” – The Minus 5
Down with Wilco, 2003
You could argue that “The Family Gardener” is technically a Wilco song considering the whole band, not just Tweedy, was featured on Down with Wilco, if you hadn’t guessed. But The Minus 5, the Scott McCaughey-headed rock collective, is still the album’s primary artist, so we’ll say that the ornately textured psych-folk standout number qualifies; Tweedy’s only lead vocal contribution on Down with Wilco remains one of the best songs he’s surrendered to a band that wasn’t his own.
13. “The Long Cut” – Uncle Tupelo
If things had gone a little differently, “The Long Cut” could have been the last the music world ever heard from Tweedy – his legacy, even. The most single-fit cut (which is actually pretty short at 3:20) off Uncle Tupelo’s final album also led to the band’s first and only network television appearance when they performed it on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in February of 1994. Tensions between Tweedy and Jay Farrar had already rendered the band terminally damaged by that point – and it’s even obvious from the video which of the two officially pulled the plug – but “The Long Cut” shows they sure didn’t break up out of a lack of forward momentum, creatively or commercially.
12. “Wanted” – Loose Fur
Born Again in the U.S.A., 2006
“When I say she’s a rapist / That really isn’t what I mean.” Helluva first impression right there, but planted at the end of an album that also includes a cheeky deconstruction of the Ten Commandments and a sunny, whistle-along character portrait of a crackhead, it’s relatively pedestrian. That’s exactly the kind of what the fuck brazenness that Loose Fur was made for, and combined with one of Tweedy, O’Rourke, and Kotche’s most inviting arrangements, “Wanted” is exactly the kind of awesomely incongruous pop that only could come out of those three.
11. “Acuff-Rose” – Uncle Tupelo
The competition of egos that brewed between Tweedy and Jay Farrar and would ultimately kill Uncle Tupelo at the height of their success caused a lot of pain and anxiety all around, but it definitely didn’t cause their work to suffer – quite the opposite. Whereas the whole band claimed songwriting credits on their first two albums, Farrar and Tweedy split the songwriting on the last two right down the middle, and you can practically hear the two exchanging blows right off the bat on the first six minutes of Anodyne: Tweedy counters one of Farrar’s best songs ever, “Slate”, with one of his own, this spirited tribute to the legendary Nashville songwriting duo Acuff-Rose.
10. “Listen Joe” – Golden Smog
Another Fine Day, 2006
Tweedy goes back decades with Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris, who was a fellow alt-country trendsetter in the early ‘90’s and once called Tweedy “one of the few people I am envious of as a writer.” They also belong to a collective of similar-minded songwriters called Golden Smog and have co-written a number of songs including “Listen Joe”, the highlight of the supergroup’s third LP and last to feature Tweedy. One of two entries on this list where he doesn’t sing lead, “Listen Joe” falls much closer to a hushed, extra ominous spin on “House of the Rising Sun” than country, alternative, or any combination of those words.
9. “Wreckroom” – Loose Fur
Born Again in the U.S.A., 2006
Just about everything Tweedy has put out since Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born in 2004, musically speaking, has been more reflective of the rehabilitated optimist he became after its release instead of the unhinged addict he often came off as in the few years prior. Not “Wreckroom” though. “Wreckroom” is out there. Tweedy’s proggiest piece of his career takes the shape of six or seven different wild animals in its eight and a half minutes – the chipmunk-to-mammoth transition on a dime at 3:15 is especially feral – though the whispering piano gallop that opens it couldn’t be more misleading.
8. “Radio King” – Golden Smog
Down by the Old Mainstream, 1995
Wilco was in its infancy when Tweedy co-penned “Radio King” to close out Golden Smog’s first formal LP, which takes its title from this warm tribute. A.M. was settling into critical indifference and Being There was still a few months away, which means “Radio King” was once arguably the best song he’d ever written for any project. He was also young enough to tap into the starry-eyed idol-worship of his teen years, recalling romanticized fascination with bygone-era musicians whose legends had decayed to the point of larger-than-life mythos. “Your music fills my car / And your voice breaks every time/ I’m still wondering if I know who you are / I hang on every line,” he sings, and it’s a sentiment that anyone who’s ever wished for five minutes of face-time with a mysterious hero can relate to. Also, he liked that “down by the old mainstream” line so much, Wilco “plagiarized” it.
7. “Gun” – Uncle Tupelo
Still Feel Gone, 1991
It all began with “Gun” for Tweedy. The first unequivocally great song he ever wrote sparked a dynamic shift in Uncle Tupelo, where his perceived role switched from the less talented number two to the equally capable co-frontman, which in turn marked the beginning of the end for them, which in turn birthed Wilco. “Gun” leads off their 1991 breakthrough sophomore LP Still Feel Gone with a kiss-off to an ex and a rumbling intro that explodes into jangly, hooky sonority spilling over with what would become the defining sounds of ‘90’s guitar rock.
6. “New Madrid” – Uncle Tupelo
New Madrid, Missouri is a city just opposite the Mississippi from Tweedy’s hometown of Belleville, Illinois, and the site of a major seismic zone that brought on earthquakes of historic magnitudes in 1811 and received attention again in 1990 when the climatologist Iben Browning predicted more were imminent (they weren’t). Given his track record of drawing from Midwestern history for inspiration during his Tupelo days, it makes sense that Tweedy would find potential in that. But he did one better and spun it into one of his finest songs, injecting a flawless country melody with heartbreaking imagery of the disaster that never was: Browning’s frightening forecast, news trucks rolling in from across the country, and a young lover taken away too soon.
5.”Black Eye” – Uncle Tupelo
March 16-20, 1992, 1992
After their bottle-smashing country-grunge affair Still Feel Gone, Uncle Tupelo pulled a contentious about-face with the acoustic, cover-heavy March 16-20, 1992, the best album they’d ever make but one they knew would stunt their fanbase’s then-booming growth. It was okay, though, because Peter Buck had their back. The R.E.M. co-founder jumped on board as producer after being impressed at a show by an obscure cover and coached them through March by assigning listening homework regularly. Combining that with Farrar and Tweedy’s obsessive record-collecting history, and the two had internalized so much traditional country and folk by that point that it started to emit from them naturally – Tweedy’s “Black Eye” being the perfect example. A short narrative about a guy who suffers a black eye evolves into commentary on the emptiness of battle scar pride: “When he realized that this one was here to stay / He took down all the mirrors in the hallway / And thought only of his younger face.” Tweedy could probably write the book on the harsh comedown of disillusionment upon finally achieving cool, but fortunately, he writes songs instead.
4. “You Are Not Alone” – Mavis Staples
You Are Not Alone, 2010
As Greg Kot wrote in the opening to his 2004 Wilco biography Learning How to Die, “Tweedy learned to be a great listener before he became a great songwriter and musician.” That skill ended up being more than just his segue into making music; it also led to a second, middle-age career of reigniting the profiles of older and/or underappreciated artists whose music he’d held dear as a young rock snob – a list that now includes Nick Lowe, Bill Fay, and the one with whom it started three years ago, Mavis Staples. Riding on the back of this soulful title track – which could only have been written by a Staples family historian, if not a Staples family member – her 2010 LP reinserted her name into the conversation much louder than anyone expected, and also introduced her to scores of younger fans with no small thanks to Tweedy’s name being attached as producer.
3. “Sandusky” – Uncle Tupelo
March 16-20, 1992, 1992
March 16-20, 1992 had its fair share of detractors who couldn’t stomach songs about physical labor evoking the Depression era from rural hipsters. Its appreciators, though, know it’s not really an authenticity thing, but in how the album’s thickly woven, nearly-100% acoustic arrangements so beautifully mirror the idea of American Elbow Grease the band set out to capture, the way that every single plucked string is given extra weight. Likewise, the album’s centerpiece is neither a traditional or a Farrar or Tweedy solo cut; the song that really holds down March is the penultimate “Sandusky”, an instrumental co-written by the two. Every instrument that comprises the album’s rustic backbone – acoustic guitar, banjo, the resounding clicks of Mike Heidorn’s tiny drum kit, and the same mandolin made famous by “Losing My Religion” one year prior – fuse together systematically like assembly workers bringing some industrial product to fruition. It’s anyone’s guess what some lyrics matching the quality of those throughout the album could have turned this song into, but what’s certain is those who wrote off March as juvenile class-tourism have nothing on “Sandusky”.
2. “Laminated Cat” – Loose Fur
Loose Fur, 2002
The best cut off either Loose Fur album actually originated as a Wilco song, a prospect for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot under the working title “Not for the Season”. It wound up on its cutting room floor largely because Wilco couldn’t decide on its shape, which is generally a symptom of two things: an album with broad sonic boundaries, and a pop song so golden that the pressure to make it perfect wins out. Did Tweedy get it right with “Laminated Cat”? Or by downsizing the song’s personnel to just himself, O’Rourke, and Kotche? Maybe – it certainly worked about as well as a charged up, lung-straining demo as it does here, a Xanax-buzzing sprawl. But if a 12-year-old B-side is good enough to remain a regular on Wilco setlists – including the two-song performance they delivered for Jimmy Fallon’s audience last July in the wake of their latest album – it’s probably safe to say it’s one of the strongest songs they (n)ever made.
1.”Please Tell My Brother” – Golden Smog
Weird Tales, 1998
In 1998, Tweedy was neck deep into his Woody Guthrie obsession, one that would probably conquer any musician bestowed with permission from Nora Guthrie to put music to notebooks full of his unused lyrics. There must be something painfully humbling about combing through one songwriter’s scraps and finding gold over and over in pieces such as “California Stars” and “Remember the Mountain Bed”, but Tweedy managed to score at least one back with “Please Tell My Brother”, which surely had Guthrie posthumously kicking himself for not penning. One acoustic guitar, two minutes, and four verses on homesickness and the tolls of the touring life make for comprehensive proof that for all of Tweedy’s studio accomplishments, he’d be nowhere without his capacity for folk perfection – chords and melodies that instantly register in the ear as familiar yet are unmistakably his own. And it’s no pastiche: He addresses his brothers, sister, and parents directly, as if that were the only way to truly prove honesty and remorse. In his career, Tweedy has crafted heaps of unclassifiable material capable of transporting his listeners to outer space or further, but it all started with his ability to transport them to the back of a dark bus thousands of miles from Southern Illinois.