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

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

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It's time for our weekly Enlighten Me conversation. This week, Rachel Martin is speaking with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, an artist whose music has helped many fans find meaning. Yeah, I see you sad dads. But rather than chat about his own catalog, Tweedy wanted to honor the music that has inspired him.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: This conversation is for anyone who has heard a song and felt less alone because of it. And I'm betting that's most of us, right? For Jeff Tweedy, his new book, "World Within A Song," is a chance to pay tribute to the music that inspired him and kept him company, songs that made a home in his head and his heart and never left.

JEFF TWEEDY: I think in song shapes. I think...


TWEEDY: You know, I think it's just the nature of having been immersed in records for my whole life, I guess.

MARTIN: So I want to do this, if you don't mind. Like, I want to kind of walk through and listen to several of the songs that you write about and just talk about them and...


MARTIN: ...The imprint that all these made on you, starting with the start. You write in the book that the song that made the first dent in your musical mind - which is your turn of phrase, which is lovely - is "Smoke On The Water" by Deep Purple.

TWEEDY: Don't play the whole thing though (laughter).

MARTIN: Hell no.


MARTIN: I was going to say, and then we're going to move past this riff. But nope, we don't yet. We stay with it. We stay with it (laughter).

TWEEDY: Yeah. I don't think you ever move past that riff.

MARTIN: No, it's just - it's the riff.

TWEEDY: You know, I think 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 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 - you know, you put your hands on the neck and you do this. And I think that I went bum-bum-buh (ph) - you know? I think it's - it really is so...

MARTIN: I got it (laughter).

TWEEDY: It's so elemental. I think it's empowering.


TWEEDY: That's the first inkling I had that it's something that I could actually do. And I feel like that song functioned that way for a lot, a lot of people that became musicians.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

TWEEDY: 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, it's like, oh, it's like you should give it a scientific name and an atomic weight.

MARTIN: Right.


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. Is that right?

TWEEDY: Mmm-hmm.

MARTIN: Let's listen to some of this.


UNCLE TUPELO: (Singing) Satan, your kingdom must come down. Satan, your kingdom must come down. I heard the voice of Jesus say, Satan, your kingdom must come down.

MARTIN: That's your version of this song.

TWEEDY: That's Uncle Tupelo's version of that song, yeah.

MARTIN: That's your band before Wilco, Uncle Tupelo. You loved this song so much that you guys recorded a version of this song.

TWEEDY: It's like when I hear myself singing that, I can hear myself trying to reach for the gravitas of the original. I don't know. I'm like - it's so low for me to sing.


UNCLE TUPELO: (Singing) Going to shout until they tear your kingdom down.

TWEEDY: The original that I heard sounds like a very old man that has earned the fear (laughter).


TWEEDY: You know? And that's one of the things I think I responded to also, is hearing these old folk songs and how they had lasted and survived for long periods of time. And they're fear-based, but there's a catharsis to them that I could relate to, that felt like punk rock to me. You know, it felt very similar to the way punk rock would - felt like a safety valve or a release, you know, of anger and fear.


FRANK PROFFITT: (Singing) For I heard the voice of Jesus say, Satan, your kingdom must come down, must come down.

MARTIN: He 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. I've experienced things that are euphoric, you know?

MARTIN: Did you grow up in a religious family?

TWEEDY: No. My mother was very suspicious of religion, particularly - I think that she thought the clergy - and I think she was suspicious of people in a lot of ways. She was - she thought they were phony.

MARTIN: All the people.

TWEEDY: Everybody.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

TWEEDY: Yeah. 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. You know, maybe that's in my DNA.

MARTIN: But then you went all in, Jeff.


MARTIN: Not on Christianity, but you ended up converting to Judaism, in large part, as I understand it, because your kid, your son, was going through the process of being bar mitzvahed. Your wife is Jewish. And you were kind of taking Hebrew classes alongside him to motivate him. But 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 if something goes down, and now it's not a funny joke at all. But I was intrigued by my kids' experience at our temple and the tolerance of a lot of different viewpoints. You know, one of the things that our rabbi told my - our older son when he was being bar mitzvahed was, he asked our rabbi, what should he do if he doesn't believe in God? And his rabbi said, doesn't matter if you believe in God. What matters is that you search for the sacred. And that made sense to me. And in a way, you could take that as almost anything - you know, like, well, look for beauty, you know, look for whatever sacred means to you. And I thought that was really beautiful, and it felt like it was in line more than any experience I'd ever had in any organized religion - felt more honest.

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.


OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Sitting in the morning sun. I'll be sitting when the evening come. Watching the ships roll in. Then I'll watch them roll away again.

MARTIN: You're just there. You're just sitting on the dock of the bay. That's it.

TWEEDY: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: That's all there - life is, is right there.

TWEEDY: Yeah. Yeah. You could - I guess a metaphor for your thoughts is just watching them come and go. That's, like, the goal of meditation. That's...

MARTIN: What did it mean to you? Why did you want to put this in?

TWEEDY: Well, I just think it's glorious. I just think it's a glorious, welcoming song. It's a warm embrace, you know, that song to me. And it's non-judgmental. It doesn't have an agenda, like a lot of songs, you know? It just - it is very still.


REDDING: (Singing) Sitting here, resting my bones.

MARTIN: Where does that pop up in your own songwriting, do you think?

TWEEDY: I don't know. I don't know if I've ever gotten that lucky - you know? - or that skilled. But, you know, it's not for lack of trying.


REDDING: (Singing) Just to make this dock my home. Now I'm just going to sit at the dock of the bay.

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


MARTIN: Yeah. Let's do it. 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 (laughter). And I want to engage you on this, Jeff.

TWEEDY: OK. All right.

MARTIN: And, of course, there's Whitney Houston's much-acclaimed top 40 version, but there's also the original Dolly's version - Dolly Parton's version.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) And I will always love you. I will always...

TWEEDY: First of all, I wouldn't say despise...


TWEEDY: ...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?


TWEEDY: And, like, 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. I know - 'cause I say...

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 part.


PARTON: (Singing) I...

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

MARTIN: Oh, I got you.

TWEEDY: And, I know, 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, you know...

MARTIN: I got you.

TWEEDY: I don't internalize it.


PARTON: (Singing) I wish you love.

MARTIN: At this point, I should admit that I was nervous to even have this conversation with you because, like, 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'm like, what did you think was going to happen, Rachel? Like, you were listening to way cooler stuff when you were growing up, right? Like, you had the Ramones and The Velvet Underground, and I was listening to Depeche Mode and Janet Jackson. And, like, 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, I mean, it can't be. You wouldn't want it to be, I don't think. I mean, that's the deeper realization is, like, I think it would be really hard for us all to just like the same things and dislike the same things. It would make no sense.

MARTIN: But, like, did it take you getting into, whatever, your early 50s to come to this, like, epiphany? Would 23-year-old Jeff Tweedy have been so generous with...

TWEEDY: No, I don't think so. I don't know if 53-year-old Jeff Tweedy would have been - is 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...


TWEEDY: ...Of, like - you know, I don't - especially as a musician, I don't think that there's a lot of good that comes from musicians sniping at each other...


TWEEDY: ...Or 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.

MARTIN: Right. 'Cause no one's going to do that to her.

TWEEDY: ...And Jon Bon Jovi is the other, like, big, punching up - people, like, that I'm sure can take a little bit of criticism from me - or it's not even criticism. It's just dismissive, you know? I've met Jon Bon Jovi. He's a very lovely person and does a lot of really, you know, great work for his community. And it doesn't help his music for me at all. You know, like, at least, in...

MARTIN: You can hold both truths at the same time.

TWEEDY: Yeah. But I also feel very, very confident that he can take a punch. Like...


BON JOVI: (Singing) No one can save me. The damage is done. Shot through the heart, and you're to blame.

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.


CAROLE KING: (Singing) Tonight, the light of love is in your eyes.

TWEEDY: Fear of love being fleeting, of loving somebody more than they love you.


KING: (Singing) But will you love me tomorrow?

TWEEDY: 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?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

TWEEDY: Are you going to be - you know, will you still love, even after - because I think there was - also one of the things that is embarrassing to me about being on stage, still to this day, is that it's so clearly that. It's so clearly you wanting some approval.


TWEEDY: And there's a nakedness to that just by being willing to walk out on a stage, that nobody needs to psychoanalyze you. They just know, oh, you wouldn't be up there if you didn't...

MARTIN: Right.

TWEEDY: ...Want me to show you that I love you.


WILCO: (Singing) Will you still love me tomorrow?

MARTIN: Jeff Tweedy, it has been such a pleasure to talk to you. Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer of Wilco, the author of the new book "World Within A Song." Thank you so much.

TWEEDY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.


WILCO: (Singing) Will you still love me, will you still love me tomorrow?

Thanks a lot.

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