They don’t often make ‘em like Wilco anymore.
Wilco is a band that has undergone a complete transformation of its musical mission since it was formed. Radiohead is the only other band that comes readily to mind as having had as extreme a transmogrification; while there are some parallels between the bands, Wilco’s reinvention was perhaps even more dramatic, with more on the line. In addition to this considerable achievement, Wilco deserves notice as well for taking on its record company in a dire all-or-nothing gamble and ultimately winning. Even file sharers deserve some credit for helping Wilco re-establish itself as one of the most innovative bands in the United States.
Our story begins with the seminal alternative country rockers Uncle Tupelo, who appeared with their debut in 1990 and caused a buzz in the alternative community with their fusion of punk and straight-faced country convention. Wilco was formed by singer/songwriters and lifelong friends Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, drummer Mike Heidorn, and Farrar’s brother Wade, who departed shortly after for the military.
The remaining trio cut four albums from 1990-1993, their final being a major label debut for Sire, Anodyne. Their music bore the influences of Hank Williams and Leadbelly, but was informed by postpunk indie bands like Husker Du. Peter Buck of R.E.M. produced their third LP, March 16-20, 1992. The title of their debut, No Depression, became a catchphrase for the new wave of alternative country-rockers who made inroads in the early 1990’s.
Uncle Tupelo could’ve continued on; Anodyne was their first charting album ever, reaching #18, praise was lavished on them from many corners, they were spearheads of a movement.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the lifelong partnership of Farrar and Tweedy deteriorated into open hostility over the band’s direction at this critical juncture, and the group split into two. Farrar recruited Heidorn and formed the country-rock band Son Volt, who released three well-regarded albums for Warners in the mid-late 90’s. Their debut, Trace, reached #7 on the Billboard chart, although sales were weaker for the other two.
Jeff Tweedy took Ken Coomer (who had replaced Heidorn on drums for Anodyne) and part-time bassist John Stirratt and mandolinist Max Johnston from Uncle Tupelo, plus guitarist Jay Bennett, and formed his new band, Wilco. This lineup recorded Wilco’s debut in 1995, A.M.
This album, recorded in a similar country-rock vein as Uncle Tupelo, sold respectably (making #27 on the charts), but by the time of their second LP, Tweedy’s vision was changing. Being There, which made many critic’s best lists in 1996, showed signs of departure. While the country-rock base was still there, the band incorporated elements of psychedelica, soul, power pop, orchestral music, and even R&B. This confounded their fans, and irritated the record label. Despite the critical praise, the album got no higher than #73 on the charts.
In 1998, the band backed Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue, a collection of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs, and then returned in 1999 with the dense, lush Summerteeth. Summerteeth was an even stranger album than Being There; a cross between The Band and Brian WIlson, with fussy production and dark, haunting melodies and lyrics. Uncle Tupelo was often described as “Americana”; Wilco took Americana and turned it into a contemporary concern. It sold even more poorly than the previous release, despite even more critical acclaim.
Which brought Wilco to a real crossroads. By all accounts, the sessions for their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, were tense ones. Bennett quit the group. The record company rejected the tapes, which were unapologetically progressive and experimental. Unwilling to make the recording more “commercially viable” Tweedy and the band bought the masters from Warner/Reprise for a reported $50,000, and went home without a contract.
Enter the file sharers, the leeches who steal music for free off the internet. When tapes of the unreleased album leaked onto the internet, they were quickly downloaded and shared on peer-to-peer networks like Napster. While the band didn’t reap any financial reward from this, the ensuing clamor for the music, which was the best and most challenging of the band’s career, led to a tour in support of the album Warner’s wouldn’t release. The tour was a success; and Nonesuch picked up the distribution deal. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot peaked at #13 on the Billboard charts, Wilco’s best showing ever, despite the leakage of the tapes. “Heavy Metal Drummer” received considerable airplay. A happy story for all concerned, except Warner Brothers.
In 2004, Wilco released their fifth album A Ghost Is Born. At this point, the band was stretching into space-rock territory, with long tracks (two over 10 minutes), emphasis on instrumentation, impressionistic lyrics. There are few bands in America right now that have provided as many surprises consistently as Wilco, and you’ve got to admire their moxie.
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