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Wilco

Biography

Wilco
Chris Strong

Wilco leapt from the grave of Uncle Tupelo, the Illinois roots outfit that almost single-handedly wrote the New Testament of alt-country. Like his former Uncle Tupelo partner Jay Farrar, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy was smitten with Gram Parsons, Doug Sahm, Roger McGuinn, and other icons of hippie twang. But unlike Farrar, Tweedy had a yen to broaden his music's stylistic reach, and with Wilco, he's incorporated everything from Beach Boys harmonies to kraut rock rhythms to postpunk distortion flares.

The band's great leap forward came with 2002's Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, a gorgeous and haunting album full of keyboard drones and other arty, well-deployed atmospherics. Since then, Wilco have sustained the seductive ache of Tweedy's voice (Wilco's true signature) even as they've incorporated more and more spacey guitars, frenzied jams, and stark reveries into their progressive pop, all the while earning a reputation as one of America's most adored bands.

After Farrar walked away from Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Tweedy and the remaining members of the band recorded A.M., joined by Bottle Rockets frontman and former Tupelo roadie Brian Henneman on guitar. The album found Wilco playing scruffy, country-tinged rock that suggested a cross between late-period Replacements and early-1970s Rolling Stones. Being There (Number 73, 1996), the band's lauded follow-up, saw Tweedy growing leaps and bounds as a songwriter as Wilco moved further away from the alt-country of Uncle Tupelo and more in the direction of the tuneful pop-rock of such early 1970s bands as Big Star.

Meanwhile, with Tweedy off making a second album with Golden Smog, an alt-country supergroup consisting of members of Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks, the rest of Wilco moonlighted as Courtesy Move. Besides recording several unreleased tracks of their own, the foursome provided backing on albums by singer/songwriters Steve Forbet and Jeff Black. (By this time multi-instrumentalist Bob Egan had replaced Max Johnston, who had left Wilco to play with his sister, Michelle Shocked, and after that with Freakwater and the Gourds.)

In 1998 Tweedy and company accepted an invitation from British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg to travel to Dublin and set some of Woody Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics to music. The resulting album, Mermaid Avenue (Number 90, 1998), was by turns funny, sexy, and incisive; wonderfully illustrating Guthrie's irrepressible spirit and ongoing relevance, it also proved to be the best record either Bragg or Wilco ever made.

Summerteeth (Number 78, 1999), Wilco's third album, appeared the following year. More pop-leaning than its predecessors, the record was full of bright, buoyant melodies salted with Tweedy's increasingly somewhat oblique lyrics. A world tour opening for R.E.M. followed, while 2000 marked the appearance of a second volume of Mermaid Avenue that was nearly as luminous as the first (it was largely outtakes from the first volume).

After purchasing a Chicago loft to record in, Wilco began work on its fourth album with solo artist and producer Jim O'Rourke. During the recording, there were further personnel changes in the band: Coomer and Bennett both left; Glenn Kotche, brought into the fold by O'Rourke, became the new drummer, while multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach replaced Bob Egan. (Tweedy, O'Rourke, and Kotche also formed a side band, Loose Fur that has released two albums on the Chicago indie label Drag City.)

In a battle that reverberated around the record industry, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album that came from the tense sessions — which were filmed by director Sam Jones for his 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart — was rejected by Wilco's label, Reprise, as uncommercial. While shopping for another label, Wilco streamed the album online, generating heavy fan and critical buzz and raising the album's profile. Critics and fans found it to be a gem. So did Nonesuch Records, a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group —, the same corporation that owned Reprise. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was finally released in 2002 by Nonesuch, who heard the band's new arty slant fitting right in with their roster. with a bit of an arty slant and reached Number 13 on the charts as well as being named the best album of 2002 in the Village Voice's annual critics poll, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains, ironically enough, Wilco's best-selling album.

Their next album occasioned more shifting band positions. Bach quit Wilco after the recording of 2004's more experimental A Ghost Is Born, replaced by multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone (the Autumn Defense); the group was also joined by the cult-favorite avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline and pianist Mikael Jorgensen. Ghost earned itself a pair of Grammys for "Best Alternative Music Album" and "Best Recording Package." Shortly before the album's set schedule, Tweedy went into rehab for a painkiller addiction; when Ghost was issued, it went to Number Eight. Next was Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, a double CD recorded at the Vic Theater. Wilco followed it with Sky Blue Sky (Number 4, 2007), their most scaled-back and straightforwardly rocking album in years.

That tack was sustained for the 2009 disc Wilco (The Album). The band streamed the music on its Web site for a week previous to release, and it reached the Number 4 position on the charts in its first week. Canadian singer Feist, who rose to fame in part thanks to an Apple iPod commercial, harmonized with Tweedy on the CD's "You and I." Jay Bennett died in his home in the summer of 2009. Wilco helped Beck put together a tribute to Skip Spence's well-respected 1960s disc Oar during the summer of 2009. The results were launched on Beck's Web site in the fall of that year.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this story.

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