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Wilco's Jeff Tweedy on religion, music — and the Dolly Parton song he dislikes

Jeff Tweedy says he thinks in "song shapes."
Sammy Tweedy
Jeff Tweedy says he thinks in "song shapes."

I've lived with a lot of musical insecurity in my life. I like a song I can sing along to. I like a traditional song structure where we move through a couple of verses but all the while we're building towards the bridge. And it's gonna be so great when we get there because that's the emotional center of the song and there will probably be some power chords that I can belt out and maybe the lyrics are dark and countercultural — but maybe they're not.

Maybe they're about the most universal of experiences: love and heartbreak and loneliness. And maybe all that feels not specific enough to be interesting, but I don't care. Because the way the notes all happened to line up makes me feel more alive than I was before the music came on.

I went to college in Tacoma, Wash., in the 1990s. When I showed up for my freshman year I had my CD collection in tow, which was heavy on the top 40 pop hits of the time. Janet (Miss Jackson, if you're nasty). En Vogue. Depeche Mode.

But the cool kids down the hall — and seemingly everywhere else on campus — were smoking pot and listening to Dylan and handing around Grateful Dead bootleg tapes. Then everyone got all excited about some band out of Seattle called Pearl Jam.

No one was ever like, "Hey Rachel, your music taste is super basic and that means you are super basic." At least not to my face.

The point of me telling you all this is because I just got to interview a guy who, from my outside vantage point, seemed pretty similar to the cool kids down the hall in my college dorm.

The guys (and they were mostly guys) who spent hours — nay, days on end — debating the quality of Led Zeppelin albums and judging other people's musical taste. Not maliciously per se, just laying out the critiques as a matter of fact and then one-upping each other with obscure musical references. I'm over it. Can't you tell?

So poor Jeff Tweedy. The lead singer of Wilco thought he was coming on for an NPR interview about his new book World Within A Song, and he got my emotional baggage about musical preferences.

But, I promise, we talked about so much more. And he's a lovely guy who bears no responsibility for my personal insecurities.

This book is his tribute to the songs and songwriters that inspired him to start making music in the first place — and then to keep doing it for a long time. And even though you will hear us disagree about the storytelling integrity of a Dolly Parton classic, we agree on something very fundamental. The highest form of music is that kind that makes people feel less alone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Tweedy: I think in song shapes. I think it's just the nature of having been immersed in records for my whole life, I guess.

Rachel Martin: You write in the book that the song that made the first "dent in your musical mind" is "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple.

Tweedy: At the time that I'm talking about in the book, I didn't know the name of that song. I don't think I would have even known anything about it other than when I picked up a guitar and I tried to imagine how somebody plays it, I put my hand on the neck and I went bump, bump bump — I played the riff.

It's so elemental. It's empowering, you know, and that's the first inkling I had that this is something that I could actually do. And I feel like that song functioned that way for a lot of people that became musicians.

It's important. It's like stumbling across some new element that gets added to the table of elements or something. You know, when somebody comes up with a riff like that we should give it a scientific name and an atomic weight.

Martin: There is a song in the book called "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," which is just a haunting, beautiful thing. Originally this was sung by a guy named Frank Proffitt. But your band before Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, you guys covered this.

Tweedy: When I hear myself singing that version, I can hear myself trying to reach for the gravitas of the original. It's so low for me to sing. The original sounds like a very old man that has earned the fear, you know, and that's one of the things I think I responded to. Hearing these old folk songs and how they had lasted and survived for long periods of time.

They're fear based, but there's a catharsis to them that I could relate to. It felt like punk rock to me. It felt very similar to the way punk rock would act as a safety valve or release of anger and fear.

Martin: Frank Proffitt strikes me as the kind of guy who really did believe in heaven and hell and Satan and good and evil. And you strike me as someone who does not believe those things.

Tweedy: I believe them in my own way. I think that I've experienced hellish things. And I've experienced things that are euphoric.

Martin: Did you grow up in a religious family?

Tweedy: No. My mother was very suspicious of religion, clergy in particular. I think she was suspicious of people in a lot of ways. She thought they were phony. All the people. Everybody. Yeah.

Martin: All the people?

Tweedy: Everybody. Yeah.

Martin: And did any of your own thoughts fall neatly into some kind of religious framework?

Tweedy: No, it never made much sense to me. I think I inherited a lot of my mom's skepticism. Maybe that's in my DNA.

Martin: But then you went all in, Jeff. Not on Christianity, but you ended up converting to Judaism in large part, as I understand it, because your son was going through the process of being bar mitzvahed, your wife is Jewish, and you were taking Hebrew classes alongside him to motivate him. You could have just bailed at the end of that, but you decided to convert.

Tweedy: Well, I joked at the time, even to the rabbi, that I just thought that I should be on the same team as my family when something goes down. And now it's not a funny joke at all.

But I was intrigued by my older son's experience at our temple and the tolerance of a lot of different viewpoints. When he asked our rabbi what he should do if he doesn't believe in God, the rabbi said it didn't matter that he didn't believe in God. He said what matters is that you search for the sacred.

That made sense to me, and in a way you could take that as almost anything, you know — look for beauty, look for whatever sacred means to you. And I thought that was really beautiful, and it felt more honest than any experience I'd ever had in any organized religion.

Martin: If we stay in a religious vein, I'm stretching a little bit, but I want to talk about Otis Redding and "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay," because I think this is the most Buddhist of songs. You're just there. You're just sitting on the dock of the bay. That's it. That's all that life is, right there.

Tweedy: Yeah. It's like a metaphor for your thoughts. You're just watching them come and go. That's the goal of meditation.

Martin: Why did you want to put this in the book?

Tweedy: Well, I just think it's glorious. I think it's a welcoming song. It's a warm embrace. That song to me, it's non-judgmental. It doesn't have an agenda like a lot of songs. It's just very still.

Martin: Where does that pop up in your own songwriting?

Tweedy: I don't know. I don't know if I've ever gotten that lucky, you know, or I'm not skilled, but it's not for lack of trying.

Martin: Can we talk about "I Will Always Love You"?

Tweedy: Sure.

Martin: So, this song is included not as a song that changed your life for the better. This song is included because you despise this song. And I want to engage you on this, Jeff.

Tweedy: OK, alright.

Martin: Of course there's Whitney Houston's much acclaimed top 40 version. But there's also the original, Dolly Parton's version, which you write about.

Tweedy: First of all, I wouldn't say I despise it, and I also wouldn't go so far as to say it's not made my life better. I think finding out what you like and don't like is all a part of making your life better, you know? And being able to recognize and reflect and introspect on what you don't like and why. And sometimes there is no answer. And I think being able to make peace with not knowing why you don't like something is good.

Martin: Before you redeem yourself though, before you get to play the guy who can recognize the beauty in all things, can you just tell me what you don't like about the song?

Tweedy: It's the I-EEE-I part. That's where the hair on the back of my neck starts to stand up or something, on all the versions. No matter who sings it, that part drives me crazy.

And to me, the song has never really earned that big of a chorus. I don't see the whole picture. I don't know who it's being sung to. I don't internalize it.

Martin: At this point, I should admit that I was nervous to even have this conversation with you because that Dolly Parton song was one of the only songs that I knew in this book when I was looking through the table of contents and immediately I thought, "What did you think was going to happen, Rachel?" You were listening to way cooler stuff when you were growing up, right?

You had the Ramones and Velvet Underground, and I was listening to Depeche Mode and Janet Jackson. I'm a pop music girl, and I have lived with this insecurity that my musical tastes were never quite edgy or interesting enough. And what I loved about this little essay you wrote about "I Will Always Love You," and a couple other essays in the book, is that you have come to the realization that not everything is for everyone, and that is OK.

Tweedy: Yeah, well, it can't be. You wouldn't want it to be, I don't think. That's the deeper realization. I think it would be really hard for us all to like the same things and dislike the same things. It would make no sense.

Martin: But did it take getting into your early 50s to come to this epiphany? Would 23-year-old Jeff Tweedy have been so generous?

Tweedy: No, I don't think so. I don't know if 53-year-old Jeff Tweedy would be so generous to be honest. I think that I probably can be a lot more judgmental than I portray myself in the book. I just don't think it's a very sympathetic, public facing part of me [laughs].

As a musician, I don't think that there's a lot of good that comes from musicians sniping at each other or are dismissing each other. Because there's not a lot to be gained from trying to take somebody down a peg.

And that's why I picked Dolly Parton, who I adore, because no one's going to do that to her. And Jon Bon Jovi is the other person I punch up at. I'm sure he can take a little bit of criticism from me. It's not even criticism, it's just being dismissive. You know, I've met Jon Bon Jovi. He's a very lovely person and does a lot of really great work for his community and it doesn't help his music for me at all [laughs].

Martin: You can hold both truths at the same time [laughs].

Tweedy: I also feel very confident that he can take a punch.

Martin: "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" by Carole King — you wrote that there was a point when you were doing that song as an encore with Wilco and it felt to you like the most honest that you could possibly be with an audience. Can you tell me why?

Tweedy: Well, because I had never written a song that expressed that as well, the fear of love being fleeting, of loving somebody more than they love you.

Early on in Wilco, there was a real sense of like, do I really get to do this? Do I really get to do this thing that I love so, so, so much? And, are you going to let me do this? Are you going to love me enough so I get to keep doing this? I was saying that very explicitly to the audience. Are you going to come back next time we play in town?

One of the things that is embarrassing to me about being on stage, still to this day, is that it's so clearly about that. It's so clearly you wanting some approval and there's a nakedness to that, just by being willing to walk out on a stage. Nobody needs to psychoanalyze you, they just know, oh, you wouldn't be up there if you didn't want me to show you that I love you.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.