Blues Music

2022 Missouri Roots Songbook Honoree: Jeff Tweedy

2022 Missouri Roots Songbook Honoree: Jeff Tweedy

“Music is magic.” This is the philosophy that guides Jeff Tweedy, who is best known as the frontman of Wilco and a former member of Uncle Tupelo. His contributions to music have helped spearhead an entire genre—alt-country—but this fact lies secondary to his deep reverence for the simple listening to and making of music, a reverence that arose in his childhood and followed him throughout his life. The release of Uncle Tupelo’s debut 1990 album, No Depression, is largely considered the official advent of alt-country music, but before he was inadvertently creating a new musical genre, Tweedy was a small-town, midwestern boy who found respite in the record stores and concert venues of St. Louis, Missouri. 

Growing up in Belleville, Illinois, which lies half an hour east of St. Louis, Tweedy escaped the monotony of small town life through punk rock. It was more than just a teenage hobby—it was a full-blown obsession. Tweedy found a best friend in his classmate, Jay Farrar, who not only shared his passion for the genre but was in a garage band with his older brothers. They called themselves the Plebes and when Tweedy was offered a spot in the group, he jumped at the chance to join. 

After Farrar’s brothers left town and the band, Tweedy and Farrar assumed control of the group, renamed themselves the Primitives, and began to experiment with writing original music. Finally they, with a few new members, renamed themselves Uncle Tupelo and this time, it stuck. Throughout the band’s evolution of monikers and lineups, Tweedy and Farrar steadily developed a style of music that was entirely their own. It combined the edge and socially-conscious themes of the punk rock they adored with the familiar, rooted sound of the country music that dominated midwestern culture. 

Though Uncle Tupelo saw a good deal of success—in a record deal, fervent fans, and a lasting impact on American roots music more than in Top 40 hits and arena tours—the group broke up after seven years when Farrar decided to quit. In 1994, Tweedy and the remaining members became Wilco, a band that has retained critical and commercial success throughout its nearly three-decade existence, and has continued to develop the alt-country genre Tweedy and Farrar helped birth.

That Tweedy has been a musician since his adolescence comes as no surprise. Born to a working class family in a town that was small enough to feel suffocating but large enough to offer ample paths toward the squandering of one’s potential, music became Tweedy’s escape. He devoured every issue of Rolling Stone he could get his hands on, stole quarters to buy records, and painstakingly taught himself to write music on a series of low-functioning-to-completely-unplayable guitars. Though he recalls a range of early favorite bands, from the Byrds to Aphrodite’s Child, it was his discovery of punk rock, and the Clash in particular, that set his creative engine into drive. Of this discovery, Tweedy says in his memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), “Your life feels empty and worthless and small, and then you find this thing that feels special, and it speaks to you in ways nothing else has, and it becomes a way forward.”

If music was his way forward, the city of St. Louis, Missouri, acted as the beginning of his path. He made the half-hour journey from Belleville to St. Louis frequently to explore record stores around the city, including the Delmar Loop’s famous Vintage Vinyl. Later, as an adult, he worked at Euclid Records on Gore Avenue to earn money while he tried to get Uncle Tupelo off the ground. In his book, Tweedy recalls, “Everybody wants meaning in their life, and we all find it in different ways. For me it was buying records.” This attitude remains intact even today, with Tweedy telling us, “On tour, every city becomes our home for the day. Communities like Columbia make us feel welcome and in return we try to get out and enjoy what each has to offer. Visiting the hidden bookstores, local coffee shops and aged music stores are the highlights of touring and we encourage everyone to do the same.”

Mississippi Nights, a now-closed venue in St. Louis, also played a pivotal role in Tweedy’s life. It’s where he saw his first concert (the Stray Cats) and where both Uncle Tupelo and Wilco played their early shows. Even after Uncle Tupelo took off and began to play bigger venues in cities outside the Midwest, Mississippi Nights remained an important place for the group. When they broke up for good, they played their final shows in Missouri—two nights at Columbia’s own Blue Note and two nights at Mississippi Nights. 

Throughout Tweedy’s prolific discography—which contains not only his work with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, but also a few solo albums, and a project called Tweedy, the father-son duo he created with his oldest child Spencer—the subject matter and sonic style he employs reflects an upbringing so many midwesterners are familiar with: a family unit comprised of both fierce love and destructive dysfunction, a fishbowl town that satisfies your needs but not your ambitions, and a pace of life that lags a few steps behind that of America’s more populous regions. Tweedy’s work takes a candid look at life and, without sugar-coating anything, nor being cliche, finds genuine beauty in small things. 

In Tweedy’s lyricism, the message is clear: little moments, whether they be sweet or sad or seemingly mundane, are what comprise our whole lives. Embracing the full spectrum of human experience, learning to find beauty, or at least meaning, in bleak landscapes and in hard times—these are Tweedy’s greatest strengths, and it is why his music tends to take such a hold on the hearts of its listeners. He calls attention to the feelings and experiences so many of us attempt to gloss over and, in doing so, reveals their significance. 

Like the genres that influenced Tweedy, alt-country is often tied to place, to time, to specific characters and stories, but it also captures a broader element of the collective human spirit. In his juxtaposition of specificity and universality, Tweedy creates music that simultaneously feels shockingly personal to the listener’s own experience and widely relatable. 

Though Tweedy has a number of mainstream accolades under his belt—a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy Award for Wilco’s 2005 A Ghost is Born and a slew of records that reached top-ten chart positions upon release, to name a couple—the real measure of his success comes from the directly evident impact his work has had on music culture. Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression made such an impression on American roots music that the founders of No Depression Magazine named their periodical after the album’s title track (it also serves as a nod to influential country group The Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven”). Tweedy’s impact is also reflected in the seal of approval he’s received from fellow music pioneers, as proven by his collaborations with a number of American roots legends. He helped write and produce three of blues star (and Roots N Blues alum!) Mavis Staples’ recent albums. He also partnered with Billy Bragg to record two albums of unreleased songs from folk hero Woody Guthrie. While Tweedy has his fair share of awards, album sales, and sold-out shows, these achievements are what set him apart. They illustrate his work’s lasting effect on not only music-listeners, but music-makers and music-journalists—the people that, like him, shape the culture of music, and in turn, shape the culture at large. 

In the increasingly turbulent 2020s, his raw, reflective ability to contemplate what it means to be human is appreciated now more than ever. While his work has reached the far corners of the globe, the humble midwestern roots that shine through so much of his work remain firmly planted, in terms of geography and, more so, in terms of character. 

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