On 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg and Wilco saved Woody Guthrie’s legacy from Dust Bowl sainthood. With the encouragement of Nora Guthrie, the folk legend’s daughter, Bragg and Wilco set some of the singer’s unheard lyrics to new music, and the results were revelatory: Woody, it turns out, was every bit as lusty, fallible and funny as the deportees, migrant laborers and hobos he portrayed in song.
Now comes the sequel, which plays down Guthrie’s playful leer in favor of his snarl. Vol. II blasts the verbal buckshot; the agit-punk Bragg wails Guthrie’s “All You Fascists,” taking obvious relish in spitting out what was once the nastiest of the f words as Wilco’s Jay Bennett plays along with rootin’, tootin’ harmonica. On “Meanest Man,” Bragg stumbles through junkyard percussion worthy of Tom Waits while staving off the hellhounds in his head.
Rawness rules on “Airline to Heaven,” a rambunctious hootenanny groove over which Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy slags off money-grubbing messiahs in a sly drawl: “Them’s got ears, let them hear.” Doing an even better job of puncturing self-righteous tyrants is “Feed of Man,” which could be a corrosive prelude to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” When Tweedy snaps, “I’ll help you squeeze and fix yourself up a new kind of a god!” his indignation even out-Braggs Bragg.
Blues shaman Corey Harris plays it broad and brassy on “Aginst th’ Law,” which underlines the wicked Guthrie sarcasm. The album’s other cameo vocal is by Natalie Merchant on the sweet but slight nursery rhyme “I Was Born” — the type of smaller, more personally expansive song (in the vein of “California Stars” and “One by One,” from the first volume) that brings us closest to Guthrie’s inner world. “Secret of the Sea” wrestles with the unanswerable over a small army of guitars, their tonal centers shifting from the Far East to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” to Nashville in the space of a few bars. Best of all is the six-minute “Remember the Mountain Bed,” a tour de force without a chorus that ends more quietly than it began, with Bennett and bassist John Stirratt’s whispered harmony briefly, almost subliminally shadowing Tweedy’s husky baritone, as though the ghost of Guthrie himself had slipped into the recording session.
Bragg also appears on ‘Til We Outnumber ‘Em, a 1996 concert honoring Guthrie, recorded at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; he and Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco and an affably crusty Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, among others, deliver spirited performances. But as with the Mermaid Avenue discs, the real stars here are the songs themselves, which in the words of Guthrie are “stories with tunes, tales with no melody, wild lines with free beats and freer rhythms . . . as pretty as the paint on your tractor, the oil on your wheel.”