In the nearly three decades since their advent, Wilco has cultivated and retained a cult following and are widely regarded as one of the prime representatives of the genre they helped spearhead, alt-country, as well as one of the best alternative rock bands in recent history. Born out of Chicago, Wilco is a Midwestern band through-and-through, but they pull from the energy of early English punk and the storytelling of mid-century American folk, giving them a sound that transcends the borders of their home region. Ater twenty-eight years of steady releases, much of which have been met with critical and commercial success, the band is as prolific as ever. Like the politically-charged music that contributed to the band’s genesis, Wilco has mastered the ability to synthesize the current social climate, imbue it with feeling and meaning, and produce resultant music that both comforts and challenges listeners.
Wilco’s origin can be traced to a band started by Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy, and his high school classmate, Jay Farrar, in their small hometown of Belleville, Illinois. They called themselves Uncle Tupelo and are widely credited with creating—if not, massively developing—alt-country. The genre fused the instrumentation and lyrical subject matter of the Americana country music Farrar and Tweedy were naturally exposed to as children of the latter-20th-century Midwest with the rebellious, socio-politically conscious spirit of early punk rock. While Uncle Tupelo never sold out stadiums, the output from their eight-year stint (1987-1994) was hugely influential on modern country, rock, and alternative music. By the end of Uncle Tupelo’s career, its lineup had expanded to include several members but Farrar and Tweedy were always the leaders. When personal differences between the two led to Uncle Tupelo’s breakup, Tweedy and the remaining members, bar Farrar, started Wilco. (Read more about Tweedy’s pre-Wilco years in this post about why he is our chosen honoree for the 2022 Missouri Roots Songbook Honor.) In in the beginning, Wilco more or less picked up where Uncle Tupelo left off in terms of sound. While their music has always retained a folky bend, over the course of their career they have cemented themselves as more of an alt-rock back than an alt-country band.
Today, the only remaining members of Wilco’s original lineup are Tweedy (vocals) and John Stirratt (bass). Nels Cline (guitar), Pat Sansone (multiple instruments), Mikael Jorgensen (multiple instruments), and Glenn Kotche (drums) round out the current lineup. The group continues to tackle heavy, contemporary issues. The group tends to favor subtle socio-political criticism, filtered through lyrical depictions of feelings and experiences.
For example, “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” was inspired by Tweedy’s experience of the Women’s March in 2017 that followed Trump’s Inauguration Day, as told to Huff Post by Tweedy, but the track never directly addresses either of these things. Rather, it seeks to capture the strange feeling these antithetical events conjured: “So many things I do / I can’t explain to you / Right now, right now / Love is everywhere / Right now I’m frightened how / Love is here, beware / Our love is everywhere.”
In some instances, the band is more direct with their commentary. In 2017 they released the track “All Lives, You Say?” on their bandcamp in response to a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The proceeds were all donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center and rather than addressing the rally itself, the song bluntly calls out those who feel the need to respond to the phrase “black lives matter” with a flippant “all lives matter:” “All lives, all lives you say / I can see you are afraid / Your skin is so thin / Your heart has escaped / All lives, all lives you say.”
However, at its core, Wilco’s music has always been about capturing the full spectrum of what it means to be human, which of course extends far beyond politics. Though their discography has no shortage of songs that delve deeply into darker emotions like anger, grief, and loneliness, their second-to-most-recent work, 2019’s Ode to Joy, sees the band seeking happiness through an appreciation of the little things.
In their artist statement, Tweedy says, “The record is, in a weird way, an ode; this terrible stuff is happening, this deepening sense of creeping authoritarianism that weighs on everybody’s psyche on a daily basis, and you’re allowed to feel a lot of things at once. And one thing that is worth feeling, that is worth fighting for, is your freedom to still have joy even though things are going to sh*t.” In this way, Ode to Joy harkens back to Wilco’s early punk influence—making emotional room for joy is an act of resistance and even rebellion in today’s world.
Their most recent full-length release, Cruel Country, put out earlier this year, takes Wilco fans full circle. Instrumentally, they return to their alt-country roots. Lyrically, the band explores the theme of—as the name suggests—America. Twenty-one songs long, the album is a reflection of our nation’s history and its current climate. Despite its shortcomings, Tweedy retains a love for America which allows for hope to bleed into even his bleakest observations. Coming out of the pandemic, Wilco is at its most Wilco—subtle but powerful, and thematically holistic.
See them play in Columbia, Missouri when they headline Roots N Blues Festival on October 7th, 2022. Get your passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.frontgatetickets.com/.