Wilco journeys down a new country road for latest release
Country music provided a fertile ground for storytelling on “Cruel Country.” In the band’s “grittier” version of country music, lyrics have more emphasis.
Wilco is going country. The band will release their double album “Cruel Country” on May 27, which features 21 tracks that embrace both country and folk.
“Even though our style of country would be more classified as late ’60s, early ’70s, it’s still fun to go unabashedly country,” says bass player John Stirratt.
They didn’t always have that deep of embrace of the genre. As the band reached the turn of the millennium, they grew tired of being called a country band, something that fans and press often did at the time. It’s easy to see why, given their early country-leaning albums as alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo.
“Folk and country were the established style leading out of Uncle Tupelo into Wilco,” says Stirratt, who followed singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy out of Uncle Tupelo to form Wilco in 1994. “There was a time where we downplayed or resisted the tag because we thought we had a lot more to offer, stylistically.”
Drummer Glenn Kotche — who, like other members of the band, played country music prior to joining Wilco — recalled the band trying to shake the genre during the making of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” as they sought to explore more experimental ground.
The band has in the years that followed that album’s release, gotten more comfortable with the descriptor. After dabbling in country and folk somewhat on “Sky Blue Sky” and subsequent albums, Kotche says it felt time to fully embrace that sound.
“We definitely have songs recorded that aren’t on this record that are much more pushing the envelope for us and just new territory, really exciting things,” says Kotche. “But at the same time, post-pandemic, I feel like it’s a collection of really fun songs with great melodies; they’re not coming from left field or anything. I think it’s maybe what is right for us to do now for our audience, for our fans…Let’s just sing some great songs together and not overthink it and let’s just enjoy ourselves.”
The project worked so well thanks in part to Tweedy’s prolific streak of writing songs during lockdown. In December 2020, he started a songwriting challenge for himself, creating one song or demo idea a day and sending it to the rest of the band. He wrote over 50 songs.
Stirratt noticed that most of voice memos had a folk and country feel. While it was not new territory, he says it helped that there was a “thread that it was a little bit easier to follow.”
“The challenge of getting in the studio is following the thread,” Stirratt says, “and trying to figure out what constitutes a record, because generally we do have a lot of material to choose from.”
It also helped that it was the band’s first time back in the studio in several years, and they were hungry to create music together.
“We all couldn’t get together at the same time due to the pandemic, so it felt amazing to make music with six people at a time in the studio,” says Stirratt.
“As the session progressed, the instrumentation stayed with Jeff on acoustic, and Nels [Cline] and Patrick on electrics,” he adds. “And specifically, Patrick [Sansone] playing a B- bender telecaster, popularized by Clarence White of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, which gives the sound a cosmic country feel.”
Country music provided a fertile ground for storytelling. In the band’s “grittier” version of country music, lyrics have more emphasis.
“I think when there is a more simple accompaniment, more supportive accompaniment; the lyrics are able to shine through a lot more,” says Kotche. “Some of Jeff’s best writing, in my opinion.”
Many of Tweedy’s lyrics provide commentary on the state of the country, examining both its beauty and cruelty. “We live in a country that’s incredible, amazing, but at the same time leaves a lot of people behind and is messy and is growing and constantly trying to grow up and do better and be better,” says Kotche. “A lot of times it’s just two steps forward, one step back. That’s just how I’ve always understood the [album’s] title.”
The band mostly recorded the album live, with many songs being captured in a take or two. Kotche says there a “certain kind of magic playing” with a lineup that’s been together for 18 years. There’s no layers of overdubs or experimentation to hide behind; just unfiltered Wilco.
“It’s about having more of a rock-and-roll mentality. Or I guess classic country,” Kotche says. “Sometimes there’s little mistakes or sometimes things aren’t perfect, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s not about that…It’s nice to just play it as a band as we would on stage and capture this song and the performance more than document a perfect version of a song.”
Review: Wilco’s ‘Cruel Country’ takes on flawed America
“Cruel Country,” Wilco (dBpm Records)
Wilco goes country as only it can on “Cruel Country,” an immensely rich 21-track, roughly 80-minute deep dive into America that is a raw and engaging take on our tumultuous times.
For longtime fans of Wilco, “Cruel Country” feels in some ways like an extension of the rock band’s “Mermaid Avenue” collection with Billy Bragg that were based on lyrics of Woody Guthrie. But “Cruel Country,” a reference more to the subject matter than the musical style, is very much Wilco’s take on America as it currently exists.
“I love my country stupid and cruel/red, white and blue,” lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy sings on the title track.
While death hangs heavy over “Cruel Country,” the record offers solace in music and community.
“All you have to do is sing in the choir with me,” Tweedy sings in as much an invitation as an aspiration.
It’s fitting that the tracks were recorded live by the band playing together at Wilco’s loft in Chicago, with minimal overdubs. That gives “Cruel Country” a raw, real feel that’s befitting the songs. Tweedy described the method as “messy. Like democracy.”
“Country Song Upside-Down” perhaps comes closest to stating Wilco’s thesis for “Cruel Country.”
“I found a song upside-down,” Tweedy sings. “A country song/Without a doubt/Dying sky and water/Rainbow/Flickering out.”
The record comes on the heels of Wilco celebrating the 20th anniversary of its most revered record, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” While the band looked back to celebrate that milestone, it’s maybe no accident that it quickly followed up its anniversary shows with a completely different-sounding genre-bending record.
As Tweedy writes in the liner notes, “Cruel Country” is an attempt to “challenge our affections for things that are flawed.”
“Cruel Country” isn’t all cruel and it isn’t all country music, either. But it’s likely to stand the test of time and still be talked about 20 years from now.
— Scott Bauer, Associated Press