Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis
By Mike Dunphy
For a certain kind of traveler — particularly those schooled in the Indie Americana musical genre of the past 30 years — it’s easy to stand on the Chicago Riverwalk and think of the band Wilco. The Marina City Towers thrusting upward in River North to shape the city skyline also graced the cover of Wilco’s most critically and popularly acclaimed album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The corncob-esque towers are often just called the Wilco Towers. The culprit behind the nomenclature is the band’s 55-year-old lead singer, chief writer, and supporting beam, Jeff Tweedy. Having formed the band in Chicago in 1994, he has lived in the city through its whole existence — pandemic included — and drawn no shortage of inspiration from the city. Twenty-eight years, 12 studio albums, 12 band members, and thousands of tour miles later, Wilco has achieved a solidity and comfort that often feels strangely familiar to even first-time listeners. One need only spin Wilco’s latest album, Cruel Country — released in May 2022 — to find ample evidence. Across 21 tracks, the album showcases the strums, thumps, plunks, and twangs that form country and folk foundations. Yet, through it all comes the spacious, intimate, and immersive Wilco magic which distinguishes the band from so many others and keeps them selling out one venue after another.
Wilco fans, to some degree, can thank the pandemic for Cruel Country. In the run-up, Tweedy and company were working on a very different sounding collection of songs at their Chicago studio, The Loft. As the world shut down, so did work on those songs. In the new era, Tweedy discovered, another tonic was needed.
“They felt really exciting to us when we started on them, before the pandemic,” Tweedy explains about the earlier batch of songs, “but they were kind of disorienting and it was a lot to ask of people in a moment when maybe a little more familiarity would be appreciated.”
That quest for comfort soon began drawing more familiar sounds from Tweedy’s guitar. “The comfort of familiar song shapes and forms like folk music and country music, which is certainly my default, is the place most comfortable for me to write in. I think maybe that just felt like firm ground, you know?”
Chicago itself provided that firm ground, too. Tweedy largely spent the lockdown at home in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood. There, with wife Sue Miller and two children Spencer and Sam, Tweedy endured the experience in a tiny pod, made all the stronger by the close-knit neighborhood where residents feel protective of their most recognizable resident. Although perhaps it wasn’t the case at first.
Credit: Mark Tom Photography
Credit: Anton Coene
“We’re in a neighborhood where most of the people we live near when we moved in had no idea who Wilco is,” he explains. Although his neighbors have come to know the band in time. “They don’t care about any of that stuff,” Tweedy explains. “They just care about us. When people slow down on our street to take a picture of our house, or somebody gets out of their car and puts a note on the door, our neighbors tell us. I can’t imagine being in a gated community or someplace where you don’t have that connection with your neighbors.”
Those Chicago roots grew even deeper and stronger with “The Tweedy Show,” an hour-ish show broadcast from April 2020 to April 2021 on Sue’s YouTube and Instagram pages. Each episode featured a jukebox of family banter, debates, anecdotes, and of course a lot of music. The homespun renditions of songs covered everything from “Dig a Pony” by the Beatles to “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake to “I Love You” by Billie Eilish.
The experience of the shows also brought Tweedy closer to his fans, something he’s always struggled with. “I’ve never been very comfortable with accepting the idea that I have fans,” Tweedy notes. “I was really comfortable in The Tweedy Show setting, because it felt like equal terms. There wasn’t a stage. We were just kind of showing people how we were coping with things, and maybe it ended up being a place that was facilitating some sort of community.”
The outpouring of goodwill and affection the show inspired from fans touched Tweedy. “It just felt like a genuine community of people who weren’t just there just for me, they were there for each other, and I just happened to be an excuse for it. And that, I was able to be very much more comfortable with.” It not only deepened the relationship with fans and fandom, Tweedy notes, “I think it just finally got me to admit that it exists and is okay.”
Chicago fans of Wilco have no qualms about showing the love, and continuously fill seats at gigs. They also represent, Tweedy recognizes, the people he’s played to most in his career. That relationship often makes Chicago shows feel different, as they nudge Wilco toward its deepest cuts. “We’ve taken advantage of Chicago being a base of a majority of our super fans,” Tweedy explains. “The audience expects us to not just play the greatest hits.”
It’s one particular fan, however, who Chicagoans can thank for bringing Tweedy and Wilco to Chicago in the first place. Sue Miller, who became Sue Tweedy in 1995, was the booking agent at the Cubby Bear and later Lounge Ax — two seminal Chicago clubs. That romance — including the “Boom” of the first kiss — even received the graphic novel treatment in Tweedy’s 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).
“I wouldn’t have picked Chicago if Susie wasn’t there,” Tweedy writes in the book about the move from Belleville in the St. Louis area, where he grew up and had called home until that point. “Chicago was where Susie’s house was, so that’s where I headed next. I packed my personal belongings — the entirety of which fit inside a thirty-one-inch footlocker trunk from Target — and drove to Chicago in a 1980 Chevy Malibu Classic.”
That was nearly 30 years ago, and Chicago has only grown on Tweedy since.
“I travel all over the world and on tour one of the things I always do is walk around. And you say, ‘Wow, this is amazing. What an amazing city,’” Tweedy muses, “But it occurred to me years ago that I think Chicago is the best. It has beautiful, unbelievable architecture, and a lakefront that looks like an ocean front. It’s one of my favorite places on Earth, and I’ve deepened my appreciation for it from traveling.”
Chicago has also become integral to Tweedy’s music, too.
“Everything I’ve put out has been recorded here — or at least been written or finished here,” he explains. “I would never be able to completely subtract Chicago from the feeling I have for the songs.”
Lake Michigan offers particular inspiration to Tweedy. “I make references to the lake a lot. It’s central to my imagination of Chicago, or my idea of Chicago.” The size alone boggles his mind. “It has one fifth of the world’s fresh water. That’s crazy. It’s exotic.”
Those listening closely to Wilco’s music may find ripples from the lake in numerous tracks. In fact, they may even hear the screeching of a CTA train. “Via Chicago,” a song from Wilco’s 1999 album Summerteeth, incorporates feedback and distortion directly inspired by the trains. “’Via Chicago’ is arranged to sound like Chicago,” Tweedy explains. “It’s supposed to sound like trying to have a conversation when you’re underneath the “L” tracks, and a train goes by. That’s why there are these intrusions of noise.”
The CTA gets more love in the romantically charged “Far Far Away,” from the 1996 album Being There.
Far, far away
From those city lights
That might be shining on you tonight
Far, far away from you
On the dark side of the room
I long to hold you in my arms and sway
Kiss and ride on the CTA
I need to see you tonight
And those bright lights
Oh, I know it’s right
Deep in my heart
I know it’s right
Perhaps even clearer connections to Chicago are in Wilco’s visual art, starting with the Wilco Towers, adding one more qualification for the official landmark status bestowed in 2016.
The video for “Everybody Hides,” from the album Ode to Joy, may be the most Chicago music video of all time. In it, Tweedy and Wilco bandmates play a game of hide and seek that sends the band out into the city while Tweedy counts down from a 1,000, or at least until he can be sure they are gone and plop down on the couch to eat popcorn and watch TV. Meanwhile, guitarist Nels Cline slips under a hairdryer at Rev. Billy’s Chop Shop; pianist Mikael Jorgenson ducks under the counter at Laurie’s Planet of Sound. Multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone slumps down in a seat at the Music Box Theatre; bassist John Stirratt gets into the scoreboard at Wrigley Field; and drummer Glenn Kotche squats on a balcony of the Marina City towers.
The loft space that begins and ends the video may also point to why Chicago bands sound so sharp, Tweedy muses.
“I look at Chicago bands and Midwestern bands, in particular, as having cheaper rents and places to rehearse, compared to New York bands and L.A. bands. It was Chicago bands, Minnesota bands — they all seem to be better rehearsed because they spend so much more time indoors and have places to play that they can afford.” That can make all the difference in a band finding itself, as it gives them a greater amount of physical — and metaphysical — space for it. “Bands in New York City,” he contrasts, “I think a lot of times they get one big gig and they have to put up or shut up.”
Wilco’s own studio and rehearsal space, The Loft, attests to this, but perhaps no better evidence of that Chicago perk is the ongoing output of Wilco and Tweedy, who never seem to stop writing, playing, and releasing music. They are still a hardworking road band, too, with the latest tour counting nearly 30 dates and nearly as many locations stretching from Redondo Beach, California, to Reykjavik, Iceland.
But when it’s all said and done, Tweedy will return to Chicago and once again set down roots for another dose of inspiration.
Or in the words of the Wilco song “Via Chicago”
I’m coming home
I’m coming home
I’m coming home