The story of Wilco is an important one to my musical DNA. After Uncle Tupelo branched off in separate directions in 1994, these new paths created both Son Volt and Wilco, two bands that as a child were played very frequently in my house. Wilco's insanely steady output has kept it as a mainstay in not only mine, but many people's music libraries since it first began. So when bassist John Stirratt tells me his world collided with singer Jeff Tweedy's because of a random cassette tape found while hanging around an Ole Miss radio station, I can't help but think sometimes things are just meant to be.
- Credit Annabel Mehren
- When it comes to the facts of life, one I'm more sure of than anything is that Wilco rules, dude.
"I was around there quite a bit, and my bandmate discovered a cassette at the station by a band called Uncle Tupelo. Just a self-released cassette called, 'Not Forever Just For Now.' On the back was just a phone number, and it turned out we loved the record! We were really taken by it. We called the number and it was Tony Margherita, [Wilco's] manager until two or three years ago," says Stirratt. "We invited them to come down and put the band up. That was how I met Jeff. It certainly changed the trajectory of my musical path, for sure."
Stirratt answers the phone from Madison, Wisconsin, where Wilco is deep into its "Cruel Country" tour, named after the band's 12th studio album (not including their excellent "Mermaid Avenue" series with Billy Bragg). As Stirratt describes it, the album is more of The Byrds than it is honky-tonk—sort of a "cosmic country" that was all birthed out of the pandemic.
"It was around New Year's of '20, Jeff started sort of sending out a song per day. They all were really compelling. Lyrically they were really concise and a lot of them could fall under a folkier sort of sound, leaning into this more traditional '60s and '70s country that I really love," he says.
The album itself touches frequently on the bleakness our country and the world has faced in recent years. While that can be heavy at times, ultimately, "Cruel Country" feels relaxing and warm with its pacing and tone—it's a double album that says, "Your friends from Wilco are still here for you." Even Stirratt felt the emotional power while it was being made.
"We have the song 'Hints,' and I remember Jeff bringing that to an early session in March of '21. That song really struck me. It has really beautiful imagery but also really great commentary on America. I think lyrically everything is just so well thought out and crafted. That was one that really set a tone for me."
In an already busy year for Wilco, the band is releasing a deluxe edition of the critically acclaimed "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" on Sept. 16, with huge vinyl reissue sets coming at the end of the month. Over two decades have passed since its initial release, but the love and lore around this album still remain. These deluxe editions feature a lot of unheard songs, alternate versions and live takes. The digital version has 51 songs in total. It's a straight-up Wilco treasure chest. "A lot of it was familiar and a lot of it was unfamiliar. I do know that we did so much work on that record. So many recordings and versions of each song. I remember thinking, even at the time, I had this little inkling that it would make a pretty good box set if someone would ever be interested in doing so. So it's funny that it actually happened," jokes Stirratt.
When he isn't touring or in the studio with Wilco or The Autumn Defense, Stirratt finds himself enjoying time spent in the hospitality industry. He's one of the minds behind the beautifully remodeled Tourists Hotel in North Adams, Massachusetts, that started as a '60s motor lodge. During the pandemic he and his wife took over Camp Oty'Okwa in Maine, which originally started off as a Boys Camp back in 1935. Stirratt enjoys the sense of providing comfort, which coincidentally also started through music back at Ole Miss.
"That was funny. After sort of living in hotels for 20 years, and to see—especially around 2012, to see the industry change and hotels reflect the places they were in, it was a really amazing use of creativity," says Stirratt. "I think the real origin came while I was at Ole Miss. We had the band crash house. Me and a few friends rented a large house and bands would roll through and stay. My sister liked to cook, and that was sort of hospitality on a level to accommodate bands. That was the real origin of it."
Stirratt says Wilco plans to get in the studio this winter following its fall tour, hoping to get some quality recording time before the band starts its first ever three-night residency in Iceland. But before all that, catch Wilco live at the Hayden Homes Amphitheater in Bend on Sept. 20.
Wilco w/ Kamikaze Palm Tree
Tue., Sep 20, 6:30pm
Hayden Homes Amphitheater
344 SW Shevlin Hixon Dr., Bend