According to the late, great songwriter Harlan Howard, all that is required to write a country song is “three chords and the truth.” Traditionally, the former has been much easier to sell than the latter. But here comes the alt-rock icons Wilco in overalls bringing hard honesty.
The Chicago-based band plays Toronto’s Budweiser Stage on Aug. 18, and Montreal’s MTELUS two nights later. Its new double album is Cruel Country, a mellow rural-music mediation on America. “I love my country, stupid and cruel, red, white and blue,” the band’s Jeff Tweedy sings on a title track that interweaves a steel guitar with what sounds like sirens. The Heartaches by the Number writer Howard never said the truth wouldn’t hurt, and neither does Tweedy.
In the album’s liner-note essay, he writes about the mirrored “problematic nature” of country music and America. He sees it as a responsibility to “challenge our affections for things that are flawed.” This from the songwriter of Ashes of American Flags, War on War and I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, from 2001′s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. More than 20 years later, Cruel Country is another in a long line of exercises in introspection and tough love from Wilco.
“The notion of nationality and patriotism and the idea of America, it’s been a topic of contemplation of quite some time for me,” Tweedy says from the band’s Chicago home base. “It’s always been fascinating to me, this pride based on the cosmic luck of being born on a specific piece of land at a specific point of history. I mean, it doesn’t have anything to do with your worth, your value.”
The timely Americana epic begins in 3/4 time, with I Am Your Mother. “Dangerous dreams have been detected, streaming over the Southern border,” Tweedy sings. It’s the first of multiple songs that address migration.
Though Wilco’s music has often been described as alt-country, Tweedy has never been comfortable with that label. But, recording new material earlier this year, the band gravitated to folk and country forms. It just made sense for Tweedy to deal with what he sees as “hallucinogenic” times within a comfortable, rather than experimental, idiom. Where the Temptations, for example, dealt with the tumult at the turn of the seventies with the hard-hitting psychedelic soul of Ball of Confusion, Wilco pacifies confusion with a waltz.
Cruel Country has been described by some reviewers as Tweedy’s state of the union, but he doesn’t see it that way. He’s not interested in polemics or educating audiences with his music. “I think it’s more important to reflect how people are feeling at different times,” he says, “rather than presenting the historical facts of what they are witnessing.”
Modern country music, especially as presented by white, male flag-waivers such as Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood, is often imbued with a “love it or leave it” mentality when it comes to a God-blessed America. While Tweedy clearly loves his country – “I’m sorry, I’m glad I’m where I am,” he warbles on All Across the World – his affection is not blinkered. Were the founding fathers crossing their fingers behind their backs when they signed the Declaration of Independence? Were they offering a Bill of Rights or were they selling a bill of goods?
“There is something to the idealism that I was brought up that was never true,” Tweedy says. “But it is, in itself, worth aspiring to. And I feel like the people marching and calling themselves patriots in this country now are the people who have given up on those ideals and are actually trying to make something else happen which is a fantasy.”
In 2020, Tweedy called for reparations in the music industry over unpaid royalty payments to Black artists. He’s collaborated musically with protest/gospel singer Mavis Staples, and in our conversation mentions gun violence and the treatment of minorities in America. He’s an observer, though, not a moaner. “As much as I care, I don’t want to appropriate something I’ve witnessed as my own suffering. I just want to help.”
Jeff Tweedy is not trying to break our heart. He just wants to understand what makes it tick.
Wilco plays Toronto, Aug. 18; Montreal, Aug. 20; Vancouver, Sept. 21; Calgary, Sept. 23.
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