Alternative country group
Wilco was initially an offshoot of Uncle Tupelo, a progressive country band that broke apart in 1994; one of the group's cofounders, Jeff Tweedy, formed a new band that held on to its country roots while adopting a more pop/rock sound. As the band progressed, however, it became clear "country" was far too limited a term to encapsulate Tweedy's musical vision. In 2002, the band's experimental album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, although dropped by its previous record label, was a swirling, chanting, experimental work that landed atop the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll.
Wilco's roots were in a combination of country and punk music, and a band called Uncle Tupelo. In 1988, two longtime friends with a passion for traditional country and punk music, who were both natives of Belleville, Illinois, a decaying blue-collar suburb east of St. Louis, Missouri, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy formed Uncle Tupelo. Prior to Uncle Tupelo, the two had formed a punk band, the Primitives, which broke up when Farrar's brother enlisted in the United States Army. Both men shared responsibility for writing music and lyrics, creating a persuasive blend of country punk, an intense style of punk-informed rural music, and were joined by drummer Mike Heidorn (later replaced by Ken Coomer).
The group toured on the Midwestern club circuit for a couple of years before releasing their debut album, No Depression in 1990, followed by Still Feel Gone in 1991, both for the independent Rockville label. These releases brought the group an instant cult following of both country and rock fans, as well as critical accolades from music magazines such as Rolling Stone. Tweedy, who played bass for the group, and Farrar, who served as lead guitarist and vocalist, each provided the group with a distinct sensibility. While Tweedy held the sweeter instincts and a critical interest in music, Farrar added soul to Uncle Tupelo's songs with his grand, indignant voice and pained tone. The group returned in 1992 with a more subdued, acoustic album of traditional folk tunes entitled March 16-20, 1992, produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, which also earned favorable critical attention. After signing with a major label, Warner Brothers' Sire/Reprise, Uncle Tupelo released Anodyne in 1993, considered the group's best album. Here, the group placed country in the background and opted for a more progressive sound.
Despite the band's newfound commercial appeal, major label contract, and growing popularity, Farrar abruptly left Uncle Tupelo in 1994 and formed a new American folk/country group called Son Volt. Neither of the men would elaborate on the exact circumstances of the split, but Tweedy did suggest that "I think it was a personal decision for Jay, but he wasn't very communicative about anything to us, which was fairly normal for Jay," as quoted by Alan Sculley in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I mean, a lot of things that were used as explanations were fairly contradictory so I wouldn't really be able to comment on it." Even though Tweedy and Farrar had worked together for years, Tweedy further commented that their relationship centered around music, rather than a personal friendship.
From the moment Farrar announced his departure, the remaining members knew that they loved making music together and did not want to stop. Thus, Tweedy took the leading role as guitarist and vocalist and renamed the group Wilco. The former members of Uncle Tupelo, which also included drummer Coomer, fiddler and mandolin and banjo player Max Johnston, and bassist John Stirratt, were later joined by a second guitarist, Jay Bennett (formerly of the group Titanic Love Affair). After closing the door on Uncle Tupelo, the newly-formed Wilco felt truly liberated. "Certain things, I think, would kind of be tossed out before they ever became a song, just on the idea that it wouldn't really fit in on an Uncle Tupelo record or really didn't work next to Jays songshings like that," Tweedy told Sculley.
Originally, Wilco earned a reputation as a no frills rock band, and Tweedy became known as a simple, personal, and uncomplicated storyteller. But the band hinted at its future musical exploration even early in its career. With a new sense of creative freedom, Wilco seemed determined to include all styles of music into their new band. In 1995, they joined the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) tour, playing some old Uncle Tupelo songs, as well as some new songs that later appeared on their debut release.
After relocating to Chicago from St. Louis, Wilco released their first album, A.M., in 1995 on the Sire/Reprise label. For the debut, the group, joined by guest guitarist Brian Henneman of the group the Bottle Rockets, maintained its country roots, but also added more pop and rock influences. Consisting of 13 tracks, 12 of which were written by Tweedy, A.M. opens with four solid rock songs, including "Box Full of Letters," which deals with separation (perhaps in regards to Farrar's leaving), and "Casino Queen," a rock song full of unbridled energy. Throughout the rest of the album, the music deepens in scope, moving back and forth between heavier rock songs and mid-tempo ballads, such as the love songs "Pick Up the Change," "That's Not the Issue," "Should've Been in Love," and "Too Far Apart." Bassist and rhythm guitarist Stirratt wrote and sang one song for the album entitled "It's Just That Simple," a tearful, traditional country tune. Later that year, multi-instrumentalist Johnson left Wilco, and fiddler and guitarist Bob Egan joined the band.
The following year, Wilco released their second album, a 19-track double CD entitled Being There. Publications such as Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times raved about the group's latest collection, using catch phrases like "album of the year" and "ambitious versatility," and their music received airplay on alternative rock radio stations across the United States. Like their debut, Being There included music from several genres, from neo-punk to rockabilly on top of their firm progressive country foundation. For example, the song "Monday" recalled the swinging rock of the Rolling Stones' hit "Brown Sugar," "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" took inspiration from West Coast 1960s pop, and "Kingpin" boasted the sounds of swaggering country.
The band went back into the studio in 1997 to begin work on their third album. In the meantime, they took time off to work on a project with British folk singer and musician Billy Bragg in Dublin. In 1998, Bragg and Wilco released the critically acclaimed Mermaid Avenue, a collection of Woodie Guthrie lyrics for which the musicians wrote their own original music. The concept for the album came about in 1995 when Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie, gave Bragg reams of her father's handwritten song lyrics and asked him to write music for them. Although Guthrie had composed some of the music for the lyrics, he did not have the chance to write the notes down before he died in 1967 following a long battle with a rare nervous disorder called Huntington's chorea. The resulting album, with music co-written by Wilco and Bragg, combined the folk blueprint of Bragg with the soul and genre-bending tendencies of Wilco. (Wilco and Bragg would revisit this formula on Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, in 2000, including even-more-obscure Guthrie originals such as "Stetson Kennedy" and "Black Wind Blowing.")
Subsequently, Wilco returned to Chicago to complete recording songs for Summer Teeth, released in 1999. A strong 1960s pop element came though in tracks like "I'm Always in Love," "ELT," and "Summer Teeth." However, Tweedy contrasted Wilco's bright pop songs with dark, often disturbing lyrics, although the overall feel of the album was upbeat. "There's a darkness to the lyrical half of the the record and there's an overwhelming brightness to the music," Tweedy informed Curtis Ross in the Tampa Tribune. "The effort was to make the record more hopeful as it progressed." Like the group's prior work, Summer Teeth received critical praise and further solidified Tweedy's reputation as one of America's most stellar songwriters. Also that year, Wilco toured Europe and the United States, opening for the group R.E.M. in larger arenas and headlining their own show at smaller venues.
Wilco seemed to be on a path to success. "I've always wanted a band where everybody felt invested and welcomed contributions, have it be fulfilling and as much of a democracy as it can be," Tweedy told the Denver Post. "With this current band, I've gotten closer to it than it's ever been. It's satisfying. But I admit it've learned to this point by f***ing it up!"
But Tweedy's enthusiasm didn't carry over to everybody else in the band. Although Wilco was in the studio recording what many consider its masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, multi-instrumentalist and key sound architect Bennett was starting to distance himself from the rest of the band. Then, a music-industry soap opera commenced after the band finished the album and submitted it to its longtime label, Reprise Records, which once had a reputation for releasing adventurous music. Reprise executives rejected the album as not commercial enough; the band pleaded its case in the media and wound up selling it to Nonesuch (which, oddly, was owned by Warner Bros., which also owns Reprise). The album's soaring, repetitive tracks sound absolutely nothing like the straightforward country-rock of A.M. or Uncle Tupelo, and songs such as "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "Heavy Metal Drummer" resembled nothing else in rock 'n' roll at the time. Critics loved it.
Although Bennett appears on Foxtrot, he quit the band shortly thereafter and went on to work on several solo projects, including three albums scheduled for release in 2004. His departure of the band is achingly chronicled on I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a bittersweet, Sam Jones-directed documentary film about the Foxtrot sessions. ("Jay wore out his welcome in a lot of ways," Tony Margherita, the band's manager, says in the film.) More departures followed Bennett; veteran Wilco keyboardist Leroy Bach (who himself had replaced Bennett) and steel guitarist Bob Egan announced their departure from the group in early 2004. In early 2004, Wilco was in the studio recording a follow-up to Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born, to be released in the summer of 2004.
Despite Wilco's success after breaking away from Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy insisted that he still remains an ordinary guy. "I'm not some big rock star, but I do run into fans every now and then who think I'm this super-special person ... and it's weird, because you can't be who they think you are." Nevertheless, he admitted to acting "freaked out" when he met one of his musical heroes in 1996, when Wilco shared a bill with Johnny Cash at a show in New York City. "I don't know if someone coached him on my name or something, but he actually walked into the room and said, 'Where's Jeff?' and my heart stopped," Tweedy recalled to Thor Christensen of the Dallas Morning News. "After you've made a few records, you think you could meet [famous] people and not act goofy. But when I'm around a guy like Johnny Cash, there's no way I can act or talk normally."
A.M., Sire/Reprise, 1995.
Being There, Reprise, 1996.
(With Billy Bragg) Mermaid Avenue, Elektra, 1998.
Summer Teeth, Reprise, 1999.
(With Billy Bragg) Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, Reprise, 2000.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Nonesuch, 2002.
A Ghost is Born, Nonesuch, 2004.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.
MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Capital Times (Madison, WI), February 5, 1997, p. 1D.
Dallas Morning News, November 3, 1996, p. 1C; November 8, 1996, p. 33A; June 21, 1998, p. 1C.
Denver Post, September 8, 2002.
Independent, April 2, 1999, p. 11.
Independent on Sunday, March 30, 1997.
New Statesman, March 26, 1999.
Newsday, June 13, 1995, p. B02; February 17, 1997, p. B07.
The Record (Bergen County, NJ), June 14, 1995, p. F09.
Rolling Stone, June 24, 1999.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 23, 1995, p. 04G; April 21, 1995, p. 06E; November 2, 1995, p. 11; January 1, 1997, p. 14; August 19, 1999, p. 26; October 11, 2002.
Spin, May 1999, p. 55.
Tampa Tribune, August 27, 1999, p. 18.
Toronto Sun, April 14, 1999, p. 63.
Wisconsin State Journal, April 8, 1999, p. 16.
"Wilco," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 9, 2004).
Wilco Official Website, http://www.wilcoworld.net (February 9, 2004).
aura Hightower and Steve Knopper
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