Once upon a time in the American Midwest there existed a band. They didn’t seem like anything that came before and captured the hearts of fans hungry for an alternative to downward spiral of the music industry. They and called themselves Uncle Tupelo. Named from a drawing of Elvis by a friend, from randomly picked words in the dictionary. The roots of the band were as varied and sporadic as the sound they produced. In their music folk and country are shamelessly intertwined with rock and punk. Though band members might humbly dispute the claim, they have been credited as being the founders of alternative country. Jason Ankeny of allmusic wrote,
“With the release of their 1990 debut LP, No Depression, the Belleville, IL, trio Uncle Tupelo launched more than simply their own career — by fusing the simplicity and honesty of country music with the bracing fury of punk, they kick-started a revolution which reverberated throughout the American underground. Thanks to a successful online site and subsequent fanzine which adopted the album’s name, the tag “No Depression” became a catch-all for the like-minded artists who, along with Tupelo, signaled alternative rock’s return to its country roots — at much the same time, ironically enough, that Nashville was itself embracing the slick gloss associated with mainstream rock and pop.”
The original lineup consisted of Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Michael Heidorn. The band would be managed by Tony Margherita, who met Jeff when he worked in a record store in St. Louis. Between 1987 and 1994 the band would embed itself in music history, though without knowing commercial success. Four albums were recorded: No Depression (1990), Still Feel Gone (1991), March 16-20 (1992), and Anodyne (1993). 89/93: An Anthology was released in 2002 as a retrospective of the band’s work. As the Band grew, so did that of the alternative rock scene. Rather than being associated with the MTV frenzy and commercialization of ‘anti-commercialization’, they dug deeper into the roots of country and folk. The band would grow in members as well. Future members would include Bill Belzer who replaced Heidorn, who was then replaced by Ken Coomer. Max Johnston and John Stirratt would also being added to the band, giving them a much richer musical range. With their increasing artistic developments, so did come tensions between Farrar and Tweedy. Eventually Farrar would leave the band and form Son Volt. Jeff Tweedy would take the remaining members to form Wilco with Margherita as manager..
Wilco “I will comply” in CB jargon, would release their first album A.M. in 1995. The album featured Brian Henneman on guitar, a long time friend and collaborator with Uncle Tupelo. Though the album didn’t receive commercial success or many favorable reviews, I always felt it was underrated and an essential step of closure in Tweedy’s breakaway from being labeled. With labels come limitations, through the years Wilco has proved itself to be above categorization. When you think of Wilco, you have to think of Tweedy. He is the heart, soul and leading visionary. Their evolution as a band is like any true artist, growing and experimenting through the years. Rather it be in the style of Boy Dylan or Pablo Picasso, Tweedy is reaching out to expression.
After A.M. would come multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, Bob Egan, and the departure of Johnston. As a guitarist and keyboardist, Bennett brought a new dimension to the sound Wilco was trying to create. The next album, Being There (1996) showed the most significant step in Wilco’s development. The album began to stray from the Uncle Tupelo sound with a harder edge and experimental dive, both musically and lyrically. Another important aspect is that Tweedy convinced Reprise Records to sell the double album set at a single album price. In so doing, the band lost their share of royalties. Though this decision might seem foolish to the business minded, it was a beginning of a special relationship with their fan base. In later years similar actions would fortify them as a band of destiny.
Wilco now had credibility and a life of its own outside of Uncle Tupelo. The next album to be released would be Mermaid Avenue (1998), collection of unknown Woody Guthrie lyrics. The album was a collaboration with Billy Bragg. Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, requested that Bragg put the songs to music. Bragg, being a fan of Wilco, convinced them to participate in the project. The album is a milestone in music history, putting Woody Guthrie in perspective to a whole new generation. The story of this collaboration is documented in Kim Hopkins film Man In The Sand (1999). After Mermaid Avenue Egan would be replaced by Leroy Bach. Simultaneously, Wilco was working on their third album. Summer Teeth (1999) would produce yet a whole new sound, strong and depressing lyrics and rich in overdubbing. After completion would come the second installment to the Woody Guthrie Project Mermaid Avenue Vol II.
During this time Tweedy was also branching out to other collaborations. By this time, Tweedy’s song writing prowess had risen to a level beyond that of the ordinary. I first heard him on the Golden Smog album Down By The Old Mainstream (1996), which lead me to Wilco. He then appeared on the following album Weird Tales (1998). He would join again with Golden Smog in 2005 on Another Fine Day. Tweedy would also do the soundtrack for Ethan Hawke’s 2001 film Chelsea Walls. After another collaboration, with Jim O’Rourke in 2000, the direction of Wilco would change once again. O’Rourke introduced drummer Glenn Kotche to Tweedy. An immediate friendship and compatibility emerged. The trio performed as Loose Fur, with the self titled album Loose Fur (2003) and then Born Again In The USA (2006).
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) would be the album that put Wilco over the top. Kotche was brought into the band on drums, replacing Coomer. During production, tensions in the band began to grow with Bennett and Tweedy’s artistic vision for the band. Bennett would then be fired after the album was completed. When the album was finished came what what could have been devastating blow to the band. Reprise records dropped the album and the band. Fortunately Wilco was able to leave with a finished album in hand. This produced an incredible freedom in how the Band could enter the next stage of its development. Remarkably this whole incident was captured for prosperity in Sam Jones Documentry I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2003).
During the time between labels, Wilco made a bold move. During a time when online downloading of music was soaring, the music industry was in panic mode. Rather by legal action or other, they were gunning down music lovers. Artist like Metallica battled Napster, bringing down a community of 26.4 million users. Wilco took a different approach. Fans were eagerly awaiting the new album, that was now in delay, the band took the decision to stream it from their website for free. The fans loved them for it. When Wilco finally signed with Nonesuch Records, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became the band’s best selling album. Ironically enough, Reprise and Nonesuch are both subsidiaries of Warner Brothers. So basically in the end, Warner Brothers bought the album twice. Before the release of the album Wilco would collaborate with Scott McCaughey on the Minus 5′s Down with Wilco (2003).
The following album, A Ghost Is Born (2004), once again experimented and explored musical possibilities. The songs were created first with Pro Tools, before being performed live. Again the album would be streamed free online before the actual release. Bach would leave the band to pursue other interest, making way for the current lineup. Jeff Tweedy (lead singer, guitar), John Stirratt (bass), and Glenn Kotche (percussion) were joined by Mikael Jorgensen (Piano), Nels Cline (Guitar), and Pat Sansone (multi-instrumental). The new lineup debuted with the album Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (2005). Ever since the beginning days of Wilco, Tweedy would embark on solo tours with acoustic guitar and harmonica in hand. In 2006 the film Jeff Tweedy – Sunken Treasure – Live in the Pacific Northwest was released. It displays the special nature of his solo performances, which put the music of Wilco into a whole different light.
The next album Sky Blue Sky (2007) would show a whole new collaboration and arrangement of the members talents. Yet again Wilco streamed the album prior to release and even offered a free MP3 download with the song What Light. The album sold an amazing 87,000 copies in the first week alone. The latest installment in the Wilco catalog is Wilco (The Album) (2009), again streamed from their website prior to release. The album has already produced their first #1 spot in the charts with the single You Never Know.
To date Wilco has won 2 Grammy awards and 2 nominations. Mermaid Avenue was nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album. A Ghost is Born won Best Alternative Music Album and Best Recording Package. Sky Blue Sky was nominated for Best Rock Album. Their success is nothing less than hard work and commitment to artistic expression mixed with a rare relationship with their fan base. I was lucky enough to meet the current lineup and attend the sound check during a show here in Paris a few years ago. Despite their fame and success, they are very approachable and generous. The true highlight of Wilco as a band is seeing them live. The unique manner in which Tweedy and the crowd interact is reminiscent of smokey bar room nights like those in Saint Louis when Uncle Tupelo plowed the grounds of musical development. Check out the official Wilco website wilcoworld.net for more information on the band and to listen to their albums.