Wilco: The Story So Far


wilco liveWilco was one of two bands formed out of alt-country trailblazers Uncle Tupelo. After a long falling out between alternating frontmen Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, Farrar formed Son Volt and Tweedy formed Wilco in the early 90’s. To listen now to Uncle Tupelo recordings seems to reveal something of a dichotomy between the two. Tweedy was McCartney to Farrar’s Lennon. Where Farrar’s tracks always seemed to be the dark heart of Uncle Tupelo’s albums, Tweedy would interject some degree of levity with his tracks. Indeed, when you listen to the debut albums from the post-Tupelo acts, Farrar seems destined to carry artistic torch of alt-country straight into the 21st century. TRACE, Son Volt’s 1996 debut, is as good a debut as your likely to find from any rock band. On the other hand, AM, Wilco’s 1995 debut, comes off a bit too light, as if Tweedy were trying a little too hard to make a radio-friendly record. With the stage set, it looked like Farrar was ready to leave Tweedy in the dust with his post-Tupelo career.

But in 1997, Wilco dropped BEING THERE, a transcendent double-album that seemed to wind through the back roads of the midwest. BEING THERE is hands-down the standard for alt-country records. It was so good that Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk legend Woody Guthrie, asked the band to team with England’s BILLY BRAGG in accompanying an extensive back catalog of her father’s lyrics. The resulting albums, MERMAID AVENUE and MERMAID AVENUE VOLUME 2, both helped to cement Wilco’s status as alt-country torch-bearers. At the same time, Son Volt dropped two subsequent albums that seemed to lack the inspiration of TRACE. Son Volt gradually faded from the limelight, while Wilco seemed poised to crossover into other territory with 1999’s SUMMERTEETH. SUMMERTEETH broadened the band’s musical horizons, incorporating Wall of sound dynamics with power pop songwriting. With SUMMERTEETH, it was clear that Wilco was moving away from, or at least refusing to be held to, the genre of alt-country.

2001’s YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT represented such a departure from the band’s roots that they were fired from their record label before its release, a move that has proved to be one of the most short-sighted in the history of recorded music. Wilco quickly rebounded and released the album which was heralded by many as a masterpiece. The band somehow managed to incorporate experimental elements with their roots and produce a record that was almost universally lauded as one of the best records of 2001. At the same time though, the band seemed to be going through members faster than they could find new ones, and Tweedy was ailing from stomach pains and addictions. The result of this tumultuous period was 2005’s A GHOST IS BORN. It was during the touring for that record that Wilco’s lineup finally managed to stabilize in the form of a six-piece. This lineup, consisting of Tweedy, bassist John Stiratt (the only other member of Wilco’s original lineup), drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, and utility players Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen, released the 2006 live album KICKING TELEVISION. KICKING TELEVISION achieved the remarkable feat for a live record of actually being a great record, and Wilco quickly garnered a reputation as one of the best live bands anywhere.

It was this lineup that recorded the back to basics powerhouse SKY BLUE SKY in 2007. Though that record raised eyebrows at first, it quickly proved to be a far more enjoyable and solid record than at first glance, and proved that Tweedy and Wilco have finally arrived as perhaps the best American band of the 21st century.

Jeff-Wilco1At this point, it seems Wilco can do no wrong. If not America’s greatest band, they are at the very least America’s version of Radiohead, a band that somehow manages to combine musical and experimental depth with widespread appeal and excellent songcraft. As of this writing, they are poised to deliver their seventh studio album, the not quite self-titled WILCO (THE ALBUM). Expectations are high, and this is purely because Wilco has proven that they are a band that can deliver.


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