Wilco is many things. But the Chicago-based band is not a one-hit wonder. Nor is it a group seeking quick fame and fortune.
Over the past two decades, Wilco has proven itself to be a highly successful, occasionally stubborn, and extremely resilient musical outfit, releasing eight studio albums; earning critical acclaim with its blend of country, punk, and alternative rock; and even rebelling against the major-label system by attempting to bridge the digital divide between copyright and file-sharing.
This band and its members are for real. And perhaps the realest man in Wilco is bassist and cofounder John Stirratt, a 44-year-old rock vet who hails from the swampy blues and Dixieland jazz region of southeastern Louisiana. He grew up in the town of Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, about an hour from New Orleans. And along with Pat Sansone, a native of Mississippi, Stirratt forms a cadre of Southern gentlemen in a band full of Yankees.
"It's an interesting regional aspect," Stirratt admits. "Me and Pat might represent more of the traditional aspect to the band."
Guitarist Nels Cline is from Los Angeles. Pianist Mikael Jorgensen and drummer Glenn Kotche are both from the Chicago area. And singer Jeff Tweedy was raised in Belleville, Illinois, worlds apart from Chicago. According to Stirratt, Tweedy seems to bind the two regions of the U.S.
"I don't really consider him very much from the North," Stirratt says. "It's part of the South in a lot of ways. He knew as much or more about folk music than I did."
Before Wilco, Stirratt and Tweedy were part of Uncle Tupelo, a group that played everything from punk to rockabilly, country, and alternative rock. But after Jay Farrar's departure in 1994, the pair — along with Uncle Tupelo members Ken Coomer and Max Johnston as well as new addition Brian Henneman — formed Wilco. And less than a year later, the outfit released its first album, A.M., which was followed by 1996's Being There and 1999's Summerteeth.
In 2001, though, Wilco's lineup was shaken up when drummer Coomer was replaced by Kotche to record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That album, in addition to setting off a series of eventual personnel changes, also marked the moment when Stirratt, Tweedy, and the rest of the crew were forced to confront the strange new reality of digital piracy.
Following the merger of AOL and Time Warner (and the consolidation of all media holdings), Wilco was dropped by its label, Reprise Records. The label, however, allowed the band to keep the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Around that time, copies of the group's songs began to show up on file-sharing networks. But rather than file lawsuits and complain to the press, Wilco discouraged the sharing of lower-quality MP3s by streaming the album in its entirety on the web.
"Even when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out ten years ago, we streamed the record and we thought it was more important for people to hear the record, talk, then come out to see the show," Stirratt says.
"The music business has been hurting for a long time, and not just in terms of bands that have been around," he adds. "Royalties are, you know, ceasing to exist, and it's making everyone stay on the road. There was a good window of 40 to 50 years where people made good money on album royalties."
Surprisingly, Stirratt says, streaming the album for free might have helped Wilco achieve a sell-out tour for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot without drastically affecting the record's commercial performance. To this date, it remains the band's best-selling release, even if the decision to stream might have resulted in the loss of a few dollars.
"I think the reality is that we probably lost a lot of money. And that's unfortunate," he admits. "But I think it's more important that people hear the record. In a way, it's gone back to just being about the live show."