Gram Parsons had a vision back in the ’60s. With his International Submarine Band, Flying Burrito Brothers and later as a solo artist, he blazed the trail for pot-smokin’, free-thinkin’ rock & roll boys (and girls) to play real-deal C&W. More than 20 years after Parsons’ death, Wilco are following that dream.
Wilco were spawned by Uncle Tupelo of Belleville, Ill., who, over the course of four albums, added country twang to their wash of guitar noise. As the tempos slowed, the frictions in the band apparently increased, and the combo, led by Belleville hometown boys Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, broke up. The only good thing about this is that each songwriter has gone his separate way to spread the gospel. First out of the gate is Tweedy’s Wilco, who have made one hell of a country-guts debut, A.M.
Tweedy enlisted other Tupeloes: bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer, as well as multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston. For A.M., Wilco were joined by fellow Midwestern guitar slinger Brian Henneman (from the raucous Bottle Rockets of Festus, Mo.) and Texas pedal steel maestro Lloyd Maines. The band’s back-porch groove is the perfect underpinning for Tweedy’s laconic baritone; he leaves wide-open spaces with his laid-back phrasing and the plain-spoken poetry of his lyrics. Maines’ lovesick pedal steel and Johnston’s nimble offerings on mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle add plaintiveness, while Henneman’s Neil Young-inspired guitar antics provide muscle.
Just as classic country tells of lovin’, cheatin’ and drinkin’ — real life in everyday language — so does Tweedy’s small-town worldview have an Everyman honesty. There hasn’t been a more real breakup song than “Box Full of Letters,” and “Passenger Side” describes another kind of loss — that of a DWI license suspension. Tweedy and crew have also absorbed riffs from their forefathers, and they spit them back: a touch of “Honky Tonk Women” here (“Casino Queen”), a dash of Tomight’s the Night there. Present throughout, of course, are Parsons and his heroes George Jones and Merle Haggard.
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Wilco’s no-frills recipe for heartfelt C&W rock is most satisfying, just as Tweedy spells it out in “Blue Eyed Soul”: “Can you keep it simple/Can you let the snare crack/Can you let it move without holding back.” Wilco have done that and more.