Jeff Tweedy helped redefine country rock in the early 1990s with his band Uncle Tupelo, then founded Wilco when that band fell apart in 1994. In the quarter-century since, Wilco has become one of the most beloved groups in modern music, and Tweedy has made time for a variety of side projects, including production work for legends like Richard Thompson and Mavis Staples, and a new memoir, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).” Not just a point-by-point recitation of his famous bands’ infamous label struggles and personnel changes, “Let’s Go” shows how Tweedy’s prolific and musically varied career is the result of a restless creative streak that helped him find meaning and a place in the world. He spoke by phone.
Q: You say in “Let’s Go” that, as an artist, “my job is to be inspired.” How did you manage that while writing prose for the first time after three decades of professional songwriting?
A: It was hard not to feel daunted. For somebody that spent his life kind of distilling language into poems and lyrics, the prospect of writing prose was really challenging to me. But I do tend to respond well to challenges. The hardest part was really discovering where to stop. When I’m telling a story, my mind wanders to the millions of details that don’t advance the story. Because those are the poetic details. But the story, in order to be clear, has to shed all of that, to make it vivid and understandable.
Q: Uncle Tupelo and your initial Wilco records had a profound impact on the perception of country rock, though you’ve traveled far beyond that genre for years. What’s your relationship to country music, and how has it changed?
A: Jay [Farrar, Tweedy’s co-leader in Uncle Tupelo] had much more of a connection to country and folk music than I did, through his family. Though you couldn’t avoid it growing up where we did [in Illinois]. But the affection for it came primarily from wanting to write songs, and country and folk music is the easiest place to hear how a song is put together with chords. Almost all other genres are much more produced, or the chords are made from a combination of instruments, not just an acoustic guitar. . . . And that type of singing — having a voice that doesn’t tend to melodies with long sustained notes, the more conversational approach to some folk music and country music felt natural to me. I don’t think there’s anything premeditated about it at all.
Q: That lack of premeditation really struck me when I read this book. Each Wilco record seems to be a big statement of some kind, but you say you never thought that way.
A: I’ve never had much faith that I could have enough insight or be smart enough to manipulate the public’s reaction to what I’m making. [Laughs] There’s no desired effect that I aim for or reliably hit. I very early on became confident in the value of process, that if you keep your head down and commit to a process, trust it, you’re going to surprise yourself and make something you didn’t have already, a record you didn’t know you needed.
Q: You’re in your 50s now, and seemingly where you want to be as an artist. Do you have any career models, people you look to and think, “That’s how I can keep this going into my 70s or beyond”?
A: No, not really. In one sense, I’d love to able to do this as long as possible, and I can point to people who’ve done it a long time. But Wilco stopped using any kind of road map a long time ago. We have a lot of peers, but I don’t think any of us have followed a similar path that resembles each other’s career. On one hand, that might be scary. But on the other hand, it’s just a rock band. . . . You either get up and play or you don’t. It’s not as complex as people make it out to be. Especially since there’s no level of success that I’m desperate to maintain. We’d be contented if we can make things work on any level where we can do it.
Q: In the early 2000s, you really struggled with opioid addiction before getting lifesaving clinical treatment. What’s gone through your mind as that issue has become an epidemic?
A: Opioids sell themselves. They feel great. There’s no mystery at all about why those drugs have become very popular. The way they changed the laws in the early 2000s was part of the crisis because they basically went from limiting the manufacture of opioids to kind of making it a free-for-all where you can sell as many as you can make. And I’ve always understood that to be the turning point. Are Americans really experiencing nine times more pain? Is that why we’re being prescribed nine times more opioids? But now people are hooked, and it’s actually become cheaper to go buy heroin. And like any other drug, it’s a symptom of malaise and depression, and there are a lot of desperate people and a lot of these communities that are having these horrible problems. Drug wars don’t really work. Punitive treatment of nonviolent criminals doesn’t work. Offering people health care would probably fix a lot of it, in my opinion. We don’t have universal health care like other countries. If there were beds for people to get into treatment, you’d have a lot less people dying. That’s a moral crisis.
John Lingan is the author of “Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk.”
By Jeff Tweedy
Dutton. 304 pp. $28.