In 1994, when Wilco formed out of the ashes of pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, the Rolling Stones already had been around for 32 years.
Now Wilco can boast nearly that same longevity, persevering as not just bands but ground-shifting trends such as grunge and nu metal have captured the imagination, then faded away.
Despite the band’s staying power, guitarist Nels Cline isn’t comfortable with the “legacy” label. One reason, he says: bands like the Stones draw an older crowd and charge hundreds of dollars for tickets. They generally aren’t touring new material; the Stones have released one studio album of original material this century, while Wilco’s tally is nine.
Chicago-based Wilco is touring to support the two-disc Cruel Country — its 15th album, if one counts a live release and two Mermaid Avenue tributes to Woody Guthrie — and will stop Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Santa Fe Opera. Kamikaze Palm Tree opens.
“We’re trying to keep our ticket prices affordable in spite of the fact that our overhead as a touring band is a little ridiculous, because we have so many guitars and keyboards and stuff,” Cline says from his home in Oneonta, New York. “So it is like bringing the circus to town. But the tickets aren’t, like, $5,000. That lets a lot more younger folks attend.”
That circus includes six band members, and while frontman Jeff Tweedy delivers meditative lyrics as he strums an acoustic guitar, Cline gets to play many of the licks that bring the music to life. At 66, he jokes that he’s the “old man” of the band — Tweedy is 55 — and says he was fortunate to be exposed to high-quality music in his formative years.
“I decided I wanted to play guitar” as a youth, Cline says. “A lot of amazing music was happening in rock ’n’ roll, and, I guess, also folk and blues in the ’60s, which is when I was growing up.”
That wasn’t the only time that the presence of music has been fortuitous, he adds.
“I would say that music has been kind of a fountain of youth for me,” Cline says. “You know, I never thought I was going to be in a prominent rock-and-roll band, starting at almost age 50.” Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone joined Wilco in 2004.
Uncle Tupelo, with its steel guitars and shuffling sound, was largely responsible for the blend of country and rock called “alt-country.” The band split in 1994, with singer-songwriter Jay Farrar continuing to pursue alt-country. His band, Son Volt, has released 10 albums and still tours.
Wilco, meanwhile, veered toward straight-up rock after its country-tinged 1996 debut album, A.M., and has had a finger in many genres since, including electronica, krautrock, and experimental. The folk-driven Cruel Country has been billed as a return to the band’s country roots, although the title track reveals a different use of the word “country,” one that sheds some light on songwriter Tweedy’s state of mind.
I love my country like a little boy
Red, white, and blue
I love my country, stupid and cruel
Red, white, and blue
Cline says Cruel Country was mostly recorded live in studio, “with Jeff singing and playing acoustic guitar, and we’re all playing at the same time. You know, there are little fixes and overdubs here and there because we’re making a record, but fundamentally, it’s the sound of live performances, including live vocals.”
Rolling Stone writes of Wilco and Cruel Country: “Mostly, they evoke Americana at its folkiest and most comforting, from the New Morning-era Dylanesque ‘I Am My Mother,’ to the cosmic pastoralism of the Dead-like reveries, ‘Many Worlds’ and ‘Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull.’ These songs, all 21 of them, flow by at a languid pace.”
Wilco is touring behind both Cruel Country and a 20th anniversary reissue of its landmark album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which famously was rejected by the band’s record label for not being accessible enough and ended up being among the group’s most acclaimed works. As a result, the set list is peppered with tracks from that release, such as “Jesus, Etc.,” “Ashes of American Flags,” and “War on War.”
Cline has been prolific outside the band, recording or contributing to nearly 50 albums, many of them jazz-flavored. He has numerous songwriting credits but is modest about his role.
“When I’m composing, sometimes it’s very utilitarian because what I’m doing is composing for a group of improvisers,” he says.
Tweedy handles the songwriting for Wilco, and Cline says the bandleader’s output keeps rising. Tweedy, too, has released music outside of Wilco to accommodate his solo ambitions.
“He was prolific [before], but he’s on some other level now,” Cline says. “I don’t even know how he does it. It’s really quite astonishing to me, and it’s inspiring. [Songs] just flow out of him. It’s really insane.”