Music

Wilco is Not a Country Band

The founders of alt-country will reject their title in Boise

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Wilco's Jeff Tweedy was staying at Dublin, Ireland's Morrison Hotel, off Lower Ormond Quay, next to the River Liffey. It was sunny and beautiful there, he said after Boise Weekly rang the frontman ... by accident.

The band's public relations rep had scheduled the interview with bassist John Stirratt but Tweedy's voice came on the line instead.

"I can go get John for you, if you want," he joked. From Tweedy's humble demeanor, it would be hard to guess he was a driving force behind a band credited with creating the alt-country genre, a band now booked for more than 100 shows a year. A comparison of his vocals to the late John Lennon elicited a laugh.

"That's very sweet," he said.

Tweedy helped start the influential Chicago-area group Uncle Tupelo in 1987. The band focused its sound on love and loss in the blue-collar Midwest rather than the country genre's traditional cowboy motifs. Tweedy was key to that three-piece, penning songs alongside co-songwriter Jay Farrar.

"Uncle Tupelo definitely had a certain amount of folk and country influence that was very prominent," said Tweedy. "We didn't feel like it was uncommon for folk and country to be a part of rock 'n' roll; it's no less prevalent in bands like The Beatles."

After relations between Tweedy and Farrar soured, the remnants of the band formed Wilco and critics have called Wilco's carrying of the Uncle Tupelo cross an extension of the country genre. Lap steel guitars and Tweedy's barroom crooning on the group's inaugural 1995 release, A.M., resulted in constant comparisons to Gram Parsons, Neil Young and the like. But Tweedy doesn't think the band fits comfortably into that category.

"I would never categorize ourselves as specifically country," he said.

Now, 18 years after its inception, the Midwestern troupe has put out a slew of albums, including a record with unreleased tracks from the legendary Woody Guthrie, which certainly didn't stop the country comparisons.

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot actually comes up as 'country' under iTunes," said Tweedy. "We got a pretty good laugh out of that."

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) is often regarded as Wilco's breakout moment, a time when the band chipped away at the country label. It marked a change from the band's previous three releases and incorporated new folk elements, strings and tinkling xylophone to keep things fresh.

"That's kind of the goal, to be able to embrace more, as opposed to less," said Tweedy.

Wilco's style has continued to evolve over the years, including its 2011 release, The Whole Love. Electronics make a debut in the band's historically analog sound.

"Over the course of many records, I think maybe we've tried to broaden our approach and not narrow it down to one thing, and kind of accumulated different stylistic trappings here and there," said Tweedy. "Some technology has seeped in there that somehow fits."

But as with any long-running band, many fans reminisce about their favorite Wilco albums. Boise fan Stephanie Coyle is most fond of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

"That is the one that scored my love for Wilco," she said, adding that A.M. and Summerteeth are close favorites.

"I like all the changes that they've made. Jeff Tweedy just really connects with the audience on a really great level," she said.

Coyle runs Go Listen Boise and is a self-confessed Wilco geek. In 2009, she filled a chartered bus full of Wilco fans to catch the band's show at Woodriver Cellars in Eagle. The 55-seat bus filled quickly--$20 netted fans a seat and a keg cup; it was a veritable Wilco booze cruise.

Tweedy said that while Wilco's fans may be passionate--wilcobase.com is a gathering place for the band's large community of super fans--he doesn't let all the fervor go to his head.

"It's really nice and sweet and flattering but it's not for us. I don't try to get too much in that mindset. I definitely think it's more for them. It's a place to share their experiences and their passion for something."

With this tour Wilco calls on its fans to take part in politics. The get-out-the-vote promotion follows the band to Boise Tuesday, June 26, where volunteers and travelers of "The Great American Road Trip" will staff a voter registration drive at Idaho Botanical Garden.

"As citizens, I think that that's an opportunity that we have to participate that's unique to us," said Tweedy.

Of Wilco's founding members, only Tweedy and Stirratt, both in their early 40s, remain. Though the band has morphed considerably over the years, newer members Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen are not averse to playing the classics alongside newer tracks.

"A Ghost is Born is the last record that there was a lineup change. The current lineup got together and we made Sky Blue Sky," Tweedy said. "Now, we've been together for three albums and a live record."

But despite the band's success, Tweedy doesn't embody the typical rock star persona. He said he gets anxious in public.

"But I do OK with one-on-one," he added.

Tweedy said he hasn't had a drink for "like 20-something years," but his migraines and fear led him to other vices.

"I did have a fairly well documented bout with painkillers," he said. "But I definitely do something different now when I get offstage. I've always been a bit socially anxious, so partying hasn't been a big part of the repertoire. Onstage, for some reason, I've always felt a little bit more comfortable than offstage."

Tweedy said he ignores the distraction of flashing stage lights and cheering fans and focuses on the music.

"Music is a great centering mechanism," he said. "If you get too far behind yourself, if you're thinking too much about what happened, or too much about what's about to happen, you lose where you are. That's a really bad thing to do when you're playing music, is to lose where you are."

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