Wilco Returns to Country Sound...with a Twist
The band heads to Interlochen this August
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 6, 2022
With a discography of a dozen studio albums, Grammy Awards, and well-regarded tours and live recordings, the success of Wilco is almost a given.
That’s despite the fact that the band, which appears at Interlochen Center for the Arts on Aug. 17, has always operated in a left field of its own choosing. Debuting as an indie-rock version of the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, the band has morphed in a number of directions in the nearly 30 years since it formed, including punk, folk, art rock, and more.
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that its newest album, Cruel Country, embraces a sort of country-esque, Americana sound. To hear guitarist Nels Cline tell it, this has all been a natural progression of Wilco.
“My first inclinations were rock and blues. In the mid ’70s, I got into improvisational music and progressive rock. Then punk galvanized me,” he says. Among the influences he cites are Bartok, Weather Report, Pink Floyd, Television, the Allman Brothers, and the Grateful Dead. He names three artists as his primary inspirations: The Byrds, Ravi Shankar, and Jimi Hendrix. So of course he’d join a multi-hyphenate alt-rock country-folk band.
“When I started playing with Wilco, I wasn’t aware of a lot of Jeff’s writing,” he says, referencing songwriter and bandleader Jeff Tweedy. “I only knew Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
Cline joined the band along with guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone just after the recording of A Ghost Is Born in 2004. Cline says Tweedy sent him versions of the songs from that album before it was released. “I knew right away it would be stylistically diverse, and I’d have a fair amount of latitude, which is liberating.”
Cline’s own music, both prior to his time with Wilco and since, is similarly disparate. In large part, it explores territory in a free jazz aesthetic while rocking out. He’s reinterpreted the music of John Coltrane, worked with his percussionist twin brother, Alex, and embraced punk and funk along with early fusion from the likes of Miles Davis, Tony Williams, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He formed a band with bassist Mike Watt (leader of punk band the Minutemen) inspired by Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart, among others.
Quite a stretch from Wilco. But what else would you expect from a man who named his band the Nels Cline Singers, with nary a vocalist in sight?
Since joining Wilco, Cline has recorded eight albums with the band while also maintaining his own career. In conversation, it’s obvious he revels in performing Tweedy’s songs with the band. “I verge on awe of his writing,” Cline says of Tweedy.
Like virtually every other musician on the planet, Cline was held hostage by the pandemic. Wilco didn’t tour or record together, so being able to do so for Cruel Country was a godsend, as the enforced time away from his bandmates—from everybody—during the pandemic raised doubts as he’s his own worst critic. “I’m still reeling from having too much time to gaze at my navel,” he says. “I’d look back on my previous recorded output and think, ‘Did I feel that entitled? What the hell was I thinking?’ I’ve tempered it a bit, but there was too much pandemic time.”
The songs on Cruel Country both embrace and expand the alt-country sound, whatever your definition of it. Tweedy says in press materials that he and the band were looking for something new musically. Doing so while still recovering from pandemic-enforced isolation felt, in his words, “untethered and futile.”
That’s when the familiar ground of country and folk music came to the fore. “Songs started happening. Loads of them,” says Tweedy.
Cline agrees with that last sentiment. “Jeff keeps writing tons and tons of songs. The songs just fly out of him. Certain songs I heard, I thought, ‘I don’t know if these are Wilco songs, but I love them.’ I joke to my friend Julian Lage, ‘I was never born with the Americana gene.’ Now I’m embracing it.
“I’m looking forward to playing out more of Cruel Country,” Cline says, noting that the band’s recent tour of Europe found Wilco concentrating on music from its previous recordings. While those will still be part of the sets stateside, Cline says the band will be performing more of its new material. The recording includes 21 songs, but Cline says the band would typically only play five or six of them at their European shows.
One of his joys as a member of the band is playing with fellow guitarist Sansone. “I get to hear Pat play. He’s a badass guitarist.” Of course, so is Cline, but he says he tries to avoid overplaying. “I just try to stay out of the way, play what the songs want.”
Sometimes, though, what the songs want is a big guitar sound. “On ‘Many Worlds,’ we jam at the end. It’s more like lattice work with tandem guitars,” he says of his dueling with Sansone. “Conversation, not heroics.”
Which is an apt description of the music of Wilco. Whatever oeuvre Tweedy sets out to explore, when fleshed out by the band, it takes on an aura of its own. With Cruel Country, it can be labeled country-folk, or maybe alt-Americana. But ultimately, it just sounds like Wilco.
Get tickets and more information on the Aug. 17 show at interlochen.org/concerts-and-events.
Photo credit Annabel Mehran.