Jeff Tweedy, the celebrated Wilco frontman, has learned a fair few songs in his time – but as the US election rolls ever closer, he’s feeling compelled to teach himself one more.
With Donald Trump still leading the Republican charge for the White House, the songwriter and producer is toying with an intriguing musical footnote, which connects the rabble-rousing Republican and the protest singer, Woody Guthrie.
“Woody wrote a song about Trump’s father called Old Man Trump,” says Tweedy, who so memorably popularised the folk master’s forgotten works on a series of acclaimed albums with Billy Bragg.
“Trump senior was Woody’s landlord in Brooklyn and the song is about how much he hated him and what a racist he was.”
As the prospect of the billionaire turned reality TV celebrity becoming the world’s most powerful man grows, Tweedy is considering playing the song in protest at what he calls the “grotesque” threat of a Trumped up America.
Could it feature in his forthcoming shows in Australia, when he will be performing with his son Spencer in their band Tweedy?
“I was hoping that there would be no need to play it but I should stop putting it off. I should learn it,” he says.
“Trump’s success is a sign of how broken things have been for so long. He doesn’t play by the established rules of political discourse. I can see the appeal for people, but that’s grotesque. It’s not a funny joke any more.”
His words recall a Woody Guthrie song, Christ for President, that Tweedy reimagined for the Mermaid Avenue record: an excoriating condemnation of the political classes, in which Woody demands the installation of a higher power to cleanse the modern day temple. “Put the Carpenter in,” he exults. The parallels to the present day seem irresistible.
“There is a very vocal faction of American politics that frankly are chickenshit. Being anti-migrant is shameful. Ridiculous. There seems to be fear of them in every western country. I think it’s a new thing. It doesn’t show a progressive society, centred around a fear of people who are being persecuted.
“I don’t think it’s as widespread a belief [in America] but it is a way for certain parts of the Republican party to rally their support. It’s pretty despicable.”
Tweedy’s eloquence goes before him. Ever since more or less inventing alt-country as one half of the creative force of the pioneering Uncle Tupelo (Jay Farrar was his co-songwriter), the 48-year-old has mapped his own dazzling trail through contemporary American rock.
Wilco have always done the unexpected, refusing to be categorised, so it’s no surprise that Tweedy has also diversified into producing (Richard Thompson’s 2015 album Still is one of his credits). After last year’s Star Wars album, Wilco have another one ready to go this year, Tweedy says. He has also branched out into the dynastic business, making music with his 18-year-old son Spencer with whom he has already released an album under the nom de plume Tweedy.
“It’s great. We work well together. We have a deep, unspoken connection which I chalk up to DNA. A lot of it I’ve done by myself and then Spencer will come by after school and help out. And then he will go home and do his homework,” he laughs.
“It’s an amazing thing to have... I’ve seen Spencer grow as a musician. He has a real natural talent.”
But he’s quick to dispel any idea that Spencer is somehow keeping the old man in touch with new music.
“That assumes I don’t listen to new music. We both consume a lot of music. It’s much more like a relationship between mates. There are holes in every kid’s knowledge about older records, and it’s my duty to fill that in. He might hear a new band and say to me that I should check it out. But it will invariably remind me of a better version ...
“Sam, my other son, is 16. He listens to music like it’s his job. Between the three of us together not a whole lot of stuff slips through the cracks.”
- Tweedy play at Meeniyan Town Hall, Victoria on 20 March, Melbourne Recital Centre on 21 March, the Factory Theatre, Sydney on 22 March, and at Bluesfest, Byron Bay on 25 and 26 March.