"I hope I don't sound like Gomer Pyle. Ya know, totally inarticulate," says Jeff Tweedy. "I'm just trying to resist the urge to sound like I know what I'm talking about. That's the worst thing you can do, pretend like there's some master plan to it all."
The comment seems incongruous coming from one of the most acclaimed pop-rock songwriters and lyricists of the '90s. With his current band Wilco and former group Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy has become one of alternative music's major forces.
With partner Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, he spawned an entire genre--the alternative country music scene whose name, No Depression, is taken from the title of Tupelo's 1990 debut album.
In the process, he's exposed a new generation to country music. Wilco combines sleepy pedal steel guitar and the twang of 1940s Nashville with the raw delivery of indie rock, tapping both styles' root sentiments of sorrow, rebellion and alienation.
The results? Consistent critical accolades, an ultra-loyal fan base, a recording home at Reprise Records, and even a Grammy nomination (though no victory) this year--for contemporary folk album for "Mermaid Avenue," a collaboration with English singer Billy Bragg on a collection of unearthed Woody Guthrie lyrics.
But with Wilco's fourth album, "Summer Teeth" (due in stores Tuesday), the quartet has almost entirely dropped the country trimmings for more esoteric pop territory. The result is a record that could propel Wilco from cult status to a higher profile in pop.
Much as "Nirvana Unplugged" documented that Kurt Cobain's songs stood up even when stripped away from their powerful grunge foundation, "Summer Teeth" proves what hard-core Wilco fans have known all along: There's a songwriting excellence to the band that is far more important to the group's records than the sentimental sounds of old-style country.
In the album, guitarists Tweedy and Jay Bennett, bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer infuse their folk-style songwriting with pop elements and little effects--bells ringing, an organ piping, sampled choral voices--that recall the experimental side of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The lyrics, meanwhile, still teeter between unabashed sentimentality and pained abstraction.
It's a brave step because it risks alienating much of the band's adoring, hard-core following.
But Tweedy has no second thoughts.
"We were using all the country instruments left over from Uncle Tupelo on the early records, 'A.M.' and a few songs on 'Being There,' " explains Tweedy, sitting in the Burbank offices of Reprise Records.
"I'd grown accustomed to working with them. It is more of an aesthetic change than upholding some sort of agenda--like we have a rural obligation to fill. That's what we get a lot with Wilco--like, 'You should be honored to be heading the No Depression movement. Why don't you wanna be the spokesperson?'
"I admire the craft, the voices and instrumental ability of so many of these bands, but it's like Method acting. I don't feel a lot of it is written out of anything more than a nostalgic feeling for some imagined past. There's no real trust or faith that speaks to me of being brave or real. You're just making good music, and that's great, but it's just not as interesting because it lacks the risk of failure."
Chicago-based Tweedy, 31, has taken plenty of risks--playing country when country wasn't cool--and has had enough success to temper any failures.
Tweedy grew up in Belleville, Ill., just east of St. Louis, where he started his first band, an outfit that did versions of '60s garage-pop songs, before hooking up with classmate Farrar and starting a punk band, the Primitives.
But he was listening to a myriad of music from different eras.
"I had punk records and '60s garage music, then started getting into country and folk music. It was like 'Wow, if this record came out today, people would love it.' I had no context and would just imagine them to be current records. Folk and country was more poetic than punk, but it had the same spirit. It was saying the same thing."
Tweedy's and Farrar's radically different personalities and songwriting styles--Tweedy sweet and whimsical, Farrar melancholy and pained--made for an explosive creativity, but not the best relationship. Though they did release four albums (the last, "Anodyne," marking their move to the major label Reprise), the band finally imploded.
Though Farrar, who went on to form the band Son Volt, was initially considered the soul behind Uncle Tupelo, Wilco's 1995 debut, "A.M.," was met with huge critical and fan acclaim, prefiguring the even bigger success of 1996's "Being There." The latter sold about 200,000 copies, more than doubling the total of "A.M."
Now the band, whose members reside in different Midwestern and Southern cities, plays about 180 shows a year, while also engaging in side projects such as Golden Smog, a collective of alternative folk and country artists.