Of the artists who rose to prominence as part of the alt-country scene of the '80s and '90s, none would have a higher profile or create a more eclectic body of work than Jeff Tweedy.
As bassist with the iconic band Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy helped kickstart the fusion of punk, alternative, country, and folk sounds known as alt-country that would help spawn the rise of roots music and Americana. Their furious early recordings (especially their 1990 debut album No Depression) earned them a passionate cult following, and 1992's March 16-20, 1992 and 1993's Anodyne saw them embracing a more dynamic and nuanced sound without losing their strengths. The abrupt breakup of Uncle Tupelo led to Tweedy forming Wilco in 1994, and while their debut, 1995's A.M., was firmly in the tradition of his previous band, their next effort, 1996's Being There, was a daring, eclectic, and accomplished effort that gave them a new standing as one of America's most-respected indie rock bands, a reputation they solidified with 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Wilco has since gone on to a long and successful career, but the creatively restless Tweedy has worked with a variety of other projects, including Loose Fur (a collaboration with Jim O'Rourke), Golden Smog (which featured him alongside members of Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Big Star, and Run Westy Run), the Minus Five (he appeared on two albums with Scott McCaughey's group), and Tweedy (a band featuring Jeff and his son Spencer Tweedy), as well as working in the studio with Billy Bragg (Wilco recorded two albums of rediscovered Woody Guthrie songs with Bragg) and Mavis Staples (producing and writing songs for three albums by the Staple Singers vocalist).
Jeff Tweedy was born in Belleville, Illinois on August 25, 1967. The youngest of four children, he absorbed the musical influences of his brothers and sisters record collections, and when he was six years old, he asked his mother for a guitar. Tweedy was soon given an acoustic guitar, but he had a hard time playing it, and set it aside until he was 12 years old, when he committed himself to learning the instrument while recovering from a bicycle accident. When he was 14, Tweedy met Jay Farrar, who was a fellow student at Belleville Township High School West. In the early '80s, Farrar formed a rockabilly band called the Plebes with his brothers Dade Farrar and Wade Farrar, and Tweedy was invited to join the group. Jeff and Jay were eager to push the band in a punk rock direction, which led to Dade leaving the group and the remaining members changing the name to the Primitives. The Primitives embraced a sound that blended punk with '60s garage rock, but after several lineup changes that reduced the group to a trio of Farrar on guitar, Tweedy on bass, and Mike Heidorn on drums, they decided to shift their emphasis from covers to original material and changed their name to Uncle Tupelo. As Farrar and Tweedy became more interested in vintage country and folk music, the sounds informed their new songs, and Uncle Tupelo formulated an explosive sound that was fast, wiry, and impassioned as they took twangy melodic structures, stripped them down, and played them at 90 mph. In 1989, the band cut a demo tape that led to the CMJ New Music Report naming Uncle Tupelo the best unsigned band of the year, and they soon struck a deal with the independent Rockville Records label. 1990's No Depression and 1991's Still Feel Gone earned enthusiastic reviews, and through extensive touring Uncle Tupelo developed a passionate fan following, while 1992's primarily acoustic March 16-20, 1992 (produced by Peter Buck) found them unplugging and digging deeper into their roots influences. The group landed a deal with Sire Records for their fourth album, 1993's Anodyne, and the lineup expanded, with Tweedy switching from bass to guitar, Ken Coomer replacing Heidorn on drums, and bassist John Stirratt and fiddler and mandolin player Max Johnson helping to fill out their sound. Anodyne quickly became Uncle Tupelo's most commercially successful release to date, but tensions between Tweedy and Farrar that had been growing during the recording of the album came to a head during the subsequent concert tour, and in January 1994, Farrar quit the band. A final tour only worsened the rift, and Uncle Tupelo played their last show on May 1, 1994.
Immediately after the Uncle Tupelo breakup, Jeff Tweedy and the other members of UT's final lineup (except, of course, for Farrar) began working up material, and they adopted the name Wilco. (It was reported that Farrar asked Tweedy not to use the name Uncle Tupelo, and Tweedy responded with "wilco," military radio slang for "Will Comply.") By the end of June 1994, Wilco had gone into the studio to record their first album; the band hadn't landed a lead guitarist yet, so Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets was brought in to play on the sessions for 1995's A.M. After the album was released by Reprise Records, Jay Bennett became Wilco's guitarist, and he soon began handling keyboards as well. During a layoff from touring with Wilco, Tweedy was invited to record with Golden Smog, a side project that also included Dan Murphy from Soul Asylum, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman from the Jayhawks, Kraig Johnson from Run Westy Run, and Noah Levy from the Honeydogs. To get around the members' various recording commitments, they each used a "Smog Name," using their middle name as their first name and the street they grew up on as their last name; Tweedy became Scott Summit for Golden Smog's 1995 album Down by the Old Mainstream. Between Wilco's extensive touring, Bennett's increased input into the group, and his experience with Golden Smog, Tweedy's musical ambitions grew, and Wilco's second album, 1996's expansive double-set Being There, was a critical success that moved in bold new directions and demonstrated to listeners that Wilco were hardly just another alt-country act.
In 1998, Tweedy appeared on the second Golden Smog album, Weird Tales, with the participants using their real names this time, and Jody Stephens of Big Star joining in on drums. His next major project found Wilco teaming up with U.K. punk-folk songwriter Billy Bragg to write and record new music for previously unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics. With Wilco and Bragg receiving co-star billing, the album, Mermaid Avenue, also appeared in 1998, and more material from the same sessions was released in 2000 as Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2. 1999 saw the release of Wilco's third LP, Summerteeth, which essentially abandoned their country influences in favor of cool but artful indie pop. While the album's sometimes bleak lyrics challenged fans, it was a hit with critics, and found the partnership of Tweedy and Bennett more productive than ever. That would change during the making of Wilco's next album; drummer Ken Coomer was dismissed from the group shortly before sessions began (with Glenn Kotche taking his place), Max Johnson was gone after Summerteeth left him with little to do in the band, and Tweedy and Bennett were soon at a creative impasse that led to Bennett's firing during the mixing process. Jim O'Rourke, who had performed live with Tweedy, was brought in to make sense of the material and perform the album's final mix. Once Wilco turned in the completed album, Reprise Records, in the midst of a corporate shake-up, declared it too uncommercial and severed ties with the group. The music press picked up on the story, and after Wilco began streaming the unreleased album on their website, the band and the LP became a cause celebre. Reprise gave Wilco the rights to the album, and they signed a new deal with Nonesuch Records (ironically also a branch of the Warner Bros. music empire). When it finally appeared in stores in 2002, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a critical success and became Wilco's best-selling album, vindicating the group and confirming their status as cutting-edge artists. In 2002, Tweedy also scored the independent film Chelsea Walls.
In 2003, Tweedy teamed with Jim O'Rourke and Glenn Kotche to form an experimental side project, Loose Fur, with their self-titled first album appearing that year; a second set from the trio, Born Again in the USA, followed in 2006. 2003 also saw the release of the Minus 5's Down with Wilco, a long-gestating collaboration between Scott McCaughey and Tweedy and his bandmates. In 2004, Tweedy made a guest appearance on another Minus 5 album, At the Organ, as well as helping out on the sessions for Arabella, the first full album from Laurie & John (which featured Wilco bassist John Stirratt and his sister Laurie Stirratt). In June 2004, Wilco brought out their follow-up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born, but the album was recorded while Tweedy was struggling with severe migraines, panic attacks, and an addiction to painkillers; the release of the album was postponed and touring was put on hold as Tweedy sought treatment. However, by the end of the year, a healthier Tweedy was back in action, and A Ghost Is Born won Grammy awards for Best Alternative Album and Best Recording Package. Wilco's lineup now featured guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, and their dynamic live interplay was documented on 2005's Kicking Television: Live in Chicago.
A third Golden Smog album, Another Fine Day, dropped in 2006, with Tweedy appearing on six of the 15 songs. Also in 2006, Tweedy made a discreet solo debut with Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest, a DVD which documented several performances from a solo acoustic tour that found him performing career-spanning sets. The following year, Wilco released the album Sky Blue Sky, which was recorded at the Loft, the band's rehearsal space and recording studio in Chicago. Later that year, Tweedy was one of a number of noted artists who contributed interpretations of Bob Dylan's songs for the soundtrack to Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There. In June 2009, Wilco released Wilco (The Album), which would prove to be their last LP for Nonesuch; when the band next brought out an album, 2011's The Whole Love, it would be their first release on their own label, dBpm Records, distributed by Anti-/Epitaph. In between those releases, Tweedy produced an album for gospel/R&B legend Mavis Staples, 2010's You Are Not Alone, with Tweedy also writing two songs for the set as well as arranging two traditional numbers. He recorded a cover of Slim Dunlap's "Ballad of the Opening Band" for the 2013 collection Songs for Slim: Rockin' Here Tonight: A Benefit Compilation for Slim Dunlap, a fundraising project to help with the medical expenses of the former Replacements guitarist after he suffered a severe stroke.
Tweedy returned to the producer's chair for Mavis Staples' 2013 set One True Vine, and in 2014, as two Wilco box sets (Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 and The Complete Studio Albums) and a career-spanning anthology (What's Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994-2014) made their way into the marketplace, Tweedy unveiled another side project, a collaboration with his son Spencer Tweedy simply called Tweedy. Sukierae, their debut album, was written and recorded while Susan Miller Tweedy (Jeff's wife and Spencer's mother) was in treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The album appeared as Jeff was putting a greater emphasis on production, as he guided studio projects by Low (The Invisible Way), White Denim (Corsicana Lemonade), Richard Thompson (Still), Kacy & Clayton (The Siren's Song), and Joan Shelley (Joan Shelley), as well as working again with Mavis Staples (If All I Was Was Black) and coordinating a posthumous release by her father and Staple Singers founder Roebuck "Pops" Staples (Don't Lose This). In July 2015, Wilco surprised fans with the album Star Wars, which debuted online without any advance notice; another album that was largely recorded at the same time, Schmilco, followed in September 2016. 2017's Together at Last was a solo Jeff Tweedy effort that found him revisiting 11 Wilco and Loose Fur songs in stripped-down acoustic arrangements. A different sort of solo effort was delivered in 2018: Warm was Tweedy's first solo album of fresh original material, with Jeff playing most of the instruments himself. The release was timed to coincide with the publication of Tweedy's memoirs, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back). ~ Mark Deming, Rovi