By David Kenney
Paying musical homage usually involves a cover version or borrowing a few licks. Rarely do musicians get to take unheard lyrics and make them their own. Especially when the lyrics are from someone as influential as folk god Woody Guthrie.
Billy Bragg and Wilco got that chance. Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie approached U.K. folk activist Billy Bragg with her father’s lyrics and Mermaid Ave. was born. While in awe of the opportunity, Wilco’s John Stirratt says the band took the project in stride.
"I think we’re able to be somewhat objective with the lyrics and the entire project," says Stirratt. "I think we were able to separate it pretty well and just look at this stuff as kind of found art with a certain perfection to it."
Bragg and Wilco recently released Mermaid Ave. Vol. II, another treasure chest of love songs, children’s tunes and political shout-outs. Spanning from 1939-1955, the songs feature ahead-of-their-time subjects like flying saucers and airlines to heaven. Bragg and
Wilco’s take on the songs vary from folk rave-ups to quiet country waltzes. Especially rousing are songs like "Joe Dimaggio Done it Again," a quirky tribute to the Yankee Slugger. Stirratt believes Guthrie would like the contrasting result.
"I think Woody being such a rebel, he would appreciate our irreverent take on his material," says Stirratt. "Nora completely fostered that, so I think it allowed us to be liberating and free to do what we wanted."
Such freedom results in a sound different from Wilco’s A.M., Being There and Summerteeth. More rock than folk, Wilco’s interpretations emulate the earnestness and power of Guthrie’s words. "Remember the Mountain Bed" and "Someday Some Mourning Sometime" has vocalist Jeff Tweedy at his bleeding-heart best, blessing passionate lyrics with cry-your-eyes-out vocal yearnings. Stirratt says that while the band loved recording the heartfelt tracks, taking a crack at Guthrie’s humorous songs was a blast.
"I think that he would appreciate that maybe people could see that he wasn’t just a politico," says Stirratt. "There’s definitely amazing humour involved and it comes through in the writing."
While Wilco and Billy Bragg have yet to tour together in support of the new album, Wilco has been performing Mermaid Ave. Vol. II with fellow Mermaid alumnus Natalie Merchant. Eventually, once their touring schedules cross paths, Stirratt says fans can expect Bragg and Wilco together in larger centers.
As for a follow-up to the moody pop of 1999’s Summerteeth, Stiratt says it’s on the way, though barely started. A couple sessions in the studio finds the band veering from the pop flavour of Summerteeth and towards something both sparser and quieter.
"We usually let whatever happens happen pretty organically, not much conjecture about sound and things like that," says Stirratt. "[It’s] stripped down but still electric and not in a folky way stripped down. We’re all kind of wondering just what the hell it is."