Baby, One More Time: Billy Bragg and Wilco further the legacy of Woody Guthrie
You’d think that Jay Bennett, multi-instrumentalist for eminent American rockers Wilco, would be all talked out about the Mermaid Avenue records, a collaboration with English singer/songwriter Billy Bragg that puts music to the words of American dust bowl troubadour Woody Guthrie. But as it turns out, Bennett’s barely discussed the project publicly at all. He and the rest of Wilco—singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, and drummer Ken Coomer—pretty much sat out the press flurry that surrounded the release of the first Mermaid Avenue record in June of 1998. “We just let Billy do it ’cause he’s such a good talker,” laughs Bennett.
The Mermaid Avenue records—the second volume of which was released May 30 on Elektra Records—evolved from the brainchild of Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the head of the Woody Guthrie Archive in New York City. (The title comes from Woody’s Coney Island address.) It was Nora who first approached Bragg, the celebrated singer, socialist, and proletarian hero, about putting her father’s dormant words to music. A longtime fan of Guthrie’s pro-labor stance and gritty, poetic songs of social protest, Bragg quickly accepted the challenge and set about writing music for some of the 2,000 or so lyrics Guthrie left behind when he died in 1967. Bragg then recruited Wilco to be his backing band for the project.
“Part of the idea behind these records is to reflect the many sides of Woody’s lyrics,” says Bennett on the phone from an airport in Michigan, where he and Wilco are on their way to their next show in support of Volume 2. The tour brings Wilco, without Bragg, to a sold-out appearance at Pier 62/63 this Thursday. “And we all thought that regardless of whether he tried to or not, Billy was always going to pick out lyrics of a certain kind. And so he said, ‘Well, why don’t you guys go look at some lyrics.'” Look they did, visiting the Guthrie Archive twice to sift through the singer’s dusty words. The process of elimination, says Bennett, wasn’t easy, but finding lyrics that resonated with the band was. “Pick your favorite lyrics in the world and imagine they didn’t have music attached to them,” he says. “Do you think you could write music for them? If the lyric itself is that moving, it kind of speaks to you.”
With lyrics in hand, Wilco and Bragg adjourned to Totally Wired, a studio in Dublin, Ireland, in December 1997. Working with producer Grant Showbiz—who’d produced several of Bragg’s solo albums—and engineer Jerry Boys (Fairport Convention, R.E.M.), the group began bringing Guthrie’s long-lost thoughts to life. Bragg came up with the music to accompany his lyric choices, which, like those of his solo work, emphasized both pro-labor rhetoric and sweeping romantic sentiments. His contributions to Volume 1 split cleanly between the political (“The Unwelcome Guest,” “I Guess I Planted”) and the personal (“Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”).
Wilco meanwhile stuck closer to the introspective words they unearthed or embraced Guthrie’s playful lyrics. They sounded earnest on the gorgeous “California Stars” and loose on the almost nonsensical “Hoodoo Voodoo.”
Yet given the presence of both parties working with a legend’s lost lyrics, the cohesiveness of Volume 1 is striking. The sense of camaraderie flows through the music, as if Bragg and Wilco had not only an inherent understanding of Guthrie’s essence, but of one another as well. “There was a bunch of us around to help out,” Bennett says. “It’s not like any one person was doing it all on their own.”
It soon became apparent that it would take more than one album to accommodate what was taking shape behind the control-room glass. “We just realized we had too much good material,” says Bennett. “We thought, ‘Well, if we can’t get all the good stuff on one record, we’re gonna have to put out another.’ We ultimately just kind of [told Elektra], ‘Well, we’re having trouble narrowing 40 songs down to 15.'”
Volume 2 continues the spirit of inclusiveness that allows for Bragg’s pointed rhetoric (standouts “Hot Rod Hotel” and “Stetson Kennedy”), his romantic side (“My Flying Saucer”), and Wilco’s sentimental bent. Their “Secret of the Sea” sounds like an outtake from the band’s lush 1999 album Summerteeth; “Joe Dimaggio Done It Again” pays homage to the baseball legend; and “Someday Some Morning” is a beautiful, ethereal proclamation of love.
The only adjustment on Volume 2 is the addition of guest musicians, most notably Natalie Merchant on “I Was Born” and modern-day traditional blues artist Corey Harris, who shines on the lighthearted “Against th’ Law.”
Asked to reflect on Wilco’s participation in Bragg’s grand experiment, Bennett is matter of fact. “The allure was being able to bring [Guthrie’s] lyrics to life,” he says. “I knew more about him than the next guy, but not nearly as much as I know now.”
And what of the possibility of a Volume 3? “I think we have some more material—some that’s been recorded and some that hasn’t been,” says Bennett. “But I don’t want to push it. Somebody else should have a shot at this.”