You'd think that after performing almost 170 shows in some 220 days on the road with Wilco, Jeff Tweedy would be craving a stretch of rest and relaxation. Since the band's critically acclaimed second album, Being There, was released in October 1996, he hasn't been home for more than two weeks at a time. But this past weekend, after just a brief respite, Tweedy and the rest of Wilco flew to Dublin to finish a project they began late last year with Billy Bragg: a collection of original songs with previously unused lyrics by legendary dust-bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie, who died in 1967 of Huntington's disease, spent most of his last 17 years in hospitals, but he continued to write songs; Tweedy says there may be as many as 3,000 unpublished song lyrics in Guthrie's New York archives. Over the years plenty of artists have tried unsuccessfully to convince Woody's youngest daughter, Nora, to let them put the words to music. According to Tweedy, Bragg approached Nora at just the right moment: she'd just uncovered a bunch of new songs and decided to let him have a stab at them. Bragg worked on the project for more than a year, mulling his options, which included making an album using a revolving cast of musicians. About a year ago he began to consider using Wilco, whom he knew only from their records.
Tweedy and Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett were in London late last winter for an acoustic performance when they met Bragg for the first time. "He got around to asking us by saying, 'I really need a rock band that plays folk music instead of the other way around,'" recalls Tweedy. "I said, 'I know a band like that.' And he said, 'That's exactly what I'm gettin' at, mate.'" Still, several months passed before Tweedy realized that Bragg was serious. "He eventually asked us to write some songs too, which made the project a lot more interesting for us."
Last summer Tweedy and Bennett accompanied Bragg to the Guthrie archives. "They have all the songs arranged by title on computer," says Tweedy. "I don't like computers, though, so they'd just bring these big dusty files. You could literally spend two hours and just be getting into the Bs. It's kind of funny, but a lot of songs on the record have titles between A, B, and C." Judging by some of Bragg and Wilco's early demos and a few lyrics Tweedy had lying around, Guthrie's later writing had a lighthearted, sometimes bawdy aspect--one song celebrates the charms of Ingrid Bergman; in another ditty the narrator wants to kiss a girl's "pee-pee hole."
In December Bragg and Wilco recorded more than 20 tunes at Chicago's Kingsize Sound Labs, and by the time they finish in Dublin they could have as many as 50 on tape. Tweedy isn't worried about the critical ramifications of collaborating posthumously with one of America's most revered musicians. "Part of Woody's spirit was not to be reverent," he says. "I don't want to look at it as a Woody tribute album. Part of the attraction of the whole project is that the purists will have to eat shit."
That attitude last reared its head when Wilco released Being There, a double album of sprawling stylistic variety that represented a kiss-off to the band's clingy, musically conservative No Depression fans. Prior to its release in 1996, Tweedy explained that the album was in large part an expression of his struggle as a dyed-in-the-wool rocker to conform to the demands of marriage and parenthood, a couple of institutions he'd recently entered into. "A lot of what Being There was about was wondering how I was going to change," Tweedy says now. "I've decided that I'm the same person." He declines to delve any deeper into his personal life, but during our recent interview in the house he shares with his wife (Lounge Ax co-owner Sue Miller) and their son, Spencer, he provided no reason to think he isn't pleased with his lot.
If the Woody Guthrie project might appease Wilco's disgruntled fans, the next Wilco album will probably get them all riled up again. The band laid down 14 tunes during its most recent tour, at studios in Portland, Nashville, North Carolina, and Austin, and plans to head back to Austin a few weeks after returning from Dublin to finish the basic tracks. Overdubs will be added at a rented Chicago loft. "I'd like to have a new Wilco album out in 1998, but I don't want to rush it," says Tweedy.
Although none of them were finished, Tweedy played me tapes of several new songs, which ranged from gorgeously introspective balladry to power pop that wouldn't sound out of place on a Cheap Trick album. Tweedy cautioned that the final versions could sound very different. "One of the things that's exciting about Wilco is not knowing what's going to happen," he says. "We've had more failures in the past year than we ever have, and I think that's a good sign. It's a sign of not just allowing yourself to do what you know you can do and what's easy."
The as-yet-untitled Guthrie project will be released by Elektra early this summer.
Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson plays in Chicago so often it seems like he lives here. But as frequent as his performances are, almost every one--from the painterly trio date with Barry Guy to his blustery bit with Peter Brštzmann's tentet--reveals another side of his playing. This week he presents a group he's brought from home, AALY (named, incidentally, for an Art Ensemble of Chicago tribute to Albert Ayler). Gustafsson, bassist Peter Janson, and drummer Kjell Nordeson add Ken Vandermark to the mix Saturday night at Unity Temple, while Wednesday's concert at Empty Bottle is billed as a meeting between AALY and the FJF (Free Jazz Four), a high-octane quartet featuring Gustafsson and Vandermark along with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Steve Hunt. The FJF's recent Okka Disk debut, Blow Horn, is as balls-to-the-walls as free jazz gets.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jeff Tweedy photo by Nathan Mandell; Billy Bragg photo by David V. Kamba.