Wilco (photo by Zoran Orlic, PR)
If you go way back with Wilco, then you know it was the big-bang demise of a two-headed band, Uncle Tupelo, that made them possible. When lightning struck the alt-country pioneers in 1994, Jay Farrar shot off to form Son Volt, leaving Jeff Tweedy with the means and inspiration to jump-start Wilco, along with bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston. That is just the first of several lineups along the way, but they're all important enough to be worth mentioning. Although Jeff Tweedy has remained Wilco's principal songwriter and frontman, the group has developed over time into such a tight and richly integrated band that no one is dismissable.
That split of Farrar and Tweedy turned 1995 into a race from the starting blocks, and while Tweedy's Wilco came out of the gate first with A.M., which is by no means a waste of anyone's time, Team Farrar released the truly beautiful Trace, cementing their spot in alt-country lore. It was time for a shift in sound.
Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jay Bennett jumped on board with Wilco and shook things up. They started sounding like classic radio, not caring if they had a "hit," and had the cojones to make their second release, Being There, a double album. Rockier songs with wider exposure, like "Outtasite (Outta Mind)," put Wilco onto more "Bands to Watch" lists.
That transitionary time was when Wilco got mixed up in the Mermaid Avenue project. Billy Bragg was working on a recording of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs and asked Wilco along. From 1997-2002, they turned that fuel into folk-rock gems that critics everywhere ate up, and the work resulted in three separate albums.
Meanwhile, back in their Chicago recording loft, Wilco made time to get its own songs recorded, but it wasn't exactly easy. The changing lineup brought conflict, which brought more turnover. Summerteeth came out in '99, and the split between the dour lyrics (Tweedy) and shiny, happy pop melodies (Bennett) was pretty clear to see. ("She's a jar/With a heavy lid...A pretty war/With feelings hid." La dee dah.)
The next chapter, 2000-2001, was the one showcased in Sam Jones' documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." If you've ever wanted to understand what the band-record-label relationship is worth, or what it's like to create art naked in the middle of a hurricane, check it out.
Despite (or due to) the furor of the process, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album that resulted from those fraught sessions is a high-water mark for many Wilco fans. It's got the noise and experimentation that has become a big part of their sound. Because of the label drama, Wilco ended up posting the whole thing for free streaming on their website, so YHF ended up being a big entry point for music lovers who were discovering the band. Critics went absolutely bonkers, Wilco got put on a lot of Best Albums Ever lists, and to date, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is still their best-selling album.
But while the story has a mostly-happy ending, the turmoil took a toll. Bennett was asked to leave. Glenn Kotche (Loose Fur) replaced original drummer Ken Coomer. Then everyone toured and toured. They recorded songs (still rock, still melodic, still experimental) for 2004's A Ghost is Born and then everyone took a breath. Tweedy did some of his breathing in rehab. As he recovered, the band retooled again (saying goodbye to Leroy Bach, welcoming Pat Sansone and Nels Cline on guitars and Mikael Jorgensen on keys), and the band toured and toured again.
At this point Wilco had become the Wilco it would be, indefinitely. And songs from A Ghost is Born still pepper the changeable, exciting, truly fun live concert experiences they put on with "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," "Muzzle of Bees," "Hummingbird," "Handshake Drugs," "I'm a Wheel," and "Theologians" often landing on set lists. The album won a Grammy—actually, two.
This timeline continues with more albums that fans still argue over, late into the night. Wilco's sixth, Sky Blue Sky, is beautiful, sweeping and perhaps less edgy, but so finely crafted that you want to play it every day. Wilco (The Album) brought us the satisfyingly loud "Bull Black Nova" plus the sweet Feist duet, "You and I."
By 2010, the band hit its stride to the point where they decided to start their own label and create their own music festival, Solid Sound, which occurs every other year (and is absolutely worth the trip to Western Massachusetts). Cue more Grammy nodding for The Whole Love in 2011—thanks to songs like "Art of Almost," "Dawned on Me" and "Whole Love"—and then it was time to breathe again.
It wasn't until 2015 that the band announced a new project, and surprised everyone by pulling it right out of their hats that day. Wilco dubbed it Star Wars (which may instead end up being remembered as The One With The Cat Painting). As Tweedy told Rolling Stone, "I started thinking about the phrase 'Star Wars' recontextualized against that painting—it was beautiful and jarring. The album has nothing to do with 'Star Wars.' It just makes me feel good. It makes me feel limitless and like there's still possibilities and still surprise in the world."
That brought Wilco to Schmilco in 2016, and though we get the Harry Nilsson reference, this one might be remembered as the one when we all thought we should start suggesting album titles to the band, because they may be misrepresenting themselves. As light as they can be ("What am I going to do when I run out of shirts to fold?"), and as much fun as every single Wilco show is, they have made serious challenges to the idea of ever categorizing music at all (alt-country turned Americana turned rock turned experimental turned Dad rock? Really?).
Post-Shmilco it became time for a break: Glen Kotche's wife, Miiri, got a Fulbright scholarship to study medical design in Helsinki. As Jeff Tweedy explained to Rolling Stone, “It just seemed like a good reason to honor her and honor his commitment to the band: kind of allow them to have that opportunity and not put a whole lot of demands on their time. It’s always good for a band to go away for a while. And Wilco really hasn’t gone away hardly ever, so it was an opportunity to kind of do that."
Everyone kept busy. John Stirratt got together with some friends to rebuild and open a seriously cool motel near their Solid Sound headquarters in North Adams, MA called Tourists. The Nels Cline 4 released Currents, Constellations and CUP (Nels's duo with Yuka C. Honda) put out Spinning Creature. Tweedy released a memoir, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), wrote enough songs for three solo albums, and hit the road — sometimes with his sons, sometimes solo, covering a lot of ground and keeping the Wilco fans burning.
The gang reunited in time for Solid Sound 2019, holding a karaoke contest for fans to perform with the band (we made sure to tuck that fun show into the FUV Live Vault). They released Ode to Joy, which is being described as stripped-down and sincere, quietly triumphant, and their best album in years — which, for the record, has been said about almost all of them.
As a mature collective of creative and adventurous artists, Wilco makes beautiful noise: They pull and push past what they've done before, and what any other band has done before, and they question everything.
For that exploration, for their chutzpah, for their honesty, and for their ability to be dark, weird, and happily hooky at the same time, Wilco is and shall remain an FUV Essentials artist.
#FUVEssentials: Wilco (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Rita Houston)