“The blues is a chair,” John Lennon once told Rolling Stone. “Not a design for a chair, or a better chair… it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not for looking at or being appreciated. You sit on that music.” The music and legacy of Woody Guthrie is another kind of chair. Too many singers, songwriters, would-be troubadours, and wannabe martyrs to name have sat in it and made indelible (or forgettable) impressions; others have stared at it reverently and tried to replicate every last creaky contour. The latter approach tries to conjure the sepia-tinged Guthrie of the collective imagination into reality. But the former, at its most successful, makes old songs breathe again in newer, different times.
It says a lot about what Billy Bragg and Wilco were able to accomplish with a stack of unreleased Guthrie lyrics on 1998’s Mermaid Avenue and 2000’s Mermaid Avenue Vol. II that the new box-set reissue—packaged with a disc of outtakes and the 1999 making-of documentary Man In The Sand—seems as much of a salute to the tribute-makers as it does to the tributee. Guthrie gained a new generation of listeners when the original Mermaid Avenue became a surprise hit, and the box set (timed in conjunction with what would’ve been Guthrie’s 100th birthday) promises to do the same. But Mermaid Avenue was even more crucial to Bragg and Wilco, producing some of the best (and best-known) songs of the artists’ careers: The supernaturally beautiful “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key” for Bragg, and the sing-along live favorite “California Stars” and breathtaking ballad “One By One” for Wilco. Mermaid Avenue may have given new life to Guthrie’s legacy, but the songs themselves belong equally to his interpreters.
Mermaid Avenue was especially pivotal for Wilco, arriving just as the group was moving out of the long shadow of Jeff Tweedy’s former band, Uncle Tupelo, with the self-conscious ambition of 1996’s double-album statement Being There. Tweedy at this time was already a tortured theoretician, weighing out the pros and cons of differing artistic avenues, and measuring his choices against the example of rock history. Working under an unimpeachable umbrella of integrity afforded by a Guthrie-related project finally allowed him to relax like never before—or, really, since.
“Easygoing” hardly describes Wilco. (Maybe, at times, “easy-listening,” though the band’s soft-rock dalliances have been just as thought-out and deliberate as the demonstrably “challenging” material.) But the ease with which Wilco slipped into various roots-rock guises on Mermaid Avenue (whether the group was backing up Bragg or playing its own songs) gave the music a lightness and immediate likeability that’s unparalleled in Tweedy’s work. The comparisons to the similarly loose and frisky support The Band gave Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes were predictable, but still correct.
Mermaid Avenue helped elevate Wilco’s status from alt-country also-ran to the most quintessentially American-sounding American rock group of its time, a reputation Tweedy spent the following decade dodging, embracing, and wrestling with. Some of that pushback even fell on Mermaid Avenue itself. First came a falling-out with Bragg, who wanted to capitalize on the first record’s success by organizing a joint tour. Wilco, instead, remained focused on the making of its next LP, 1999’s Summerteeth, the first of several left turns away from the straightforward Americana of the Being There/Mermaid Avenue period.
The tension with Bragg ultimately stemmed from financial concerns rather than musical ones. And that tension hasn’t gone away: Tweedy (during a recent interview on the Nerdist podcast) still hints at “some really questionable business practices” from the time “that I still don’t quite understand,” and how this has made it difficult for him “to feel 100 percent on board with that project, even though I’m 100 percent on board with Woody.”
As the rather boring Man In The Sand shows, “that project” was originally intended only for Bragg. Guthrie’s daughter Nora first approached the British folkie in 1992, and invited him to dig through boxes of her father’s unpublished writings. (Nora Guthrie later estimated that the boxes she showed Bragg contained lyrics for more than 3,000 songs.) While some of the lyrics were in the vein of the political activism for which Guthrie (and Bragg) was known, many more delved into personal and idiosyncratic subject matter: Ingrid Bergman’s sexiness, Joe DiMaggio’s heroism, the bucolic and bitter turns of romantic relationships, the wondrous fragility of human existence. It was a snapshot of a flesh-and-blood man, not a myth, and it called out for music that didn’t rely on the guitar-and-harmonica signifiers of Guthrie’s larger-than-life dustbowl sound.
Bragg eventually enlisted Wilco’s support after hearing the wide-ranging Being There; he rightly believed that this was precisely the band to help him pull off the variety of bedrock folk, blues, and rock styles that would enliven the material. (Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs and bluesman Corey Harris also contributed to the sessions.) Whether working together or separately, Bragg and Wilco set about showcasing a uniquely human side to Guthrie’s legend while sounding only like themselves, and doing it in the most natural and least contrived “modern” manner imaginable.
The third volume of Mermaid Avenue material can be accurately described as the last scraps at the bottom of the barrel. But what a barrel! What comes across, as always, is Bragg’s expressive plaintiveness (custom-made for the likes of “Union Prayer”) and Wilco’s understated instrumental virtuosity. The salt-of-the-earth banjo strumming of “Chain Of Broken Hearts” is a remnant of a musical style that Wilco soon left behind in favor of the stately, piano-driven country-soul of “That Lonesome Wind That Blows,” which sounds so airy that it begs to be mistaken for a Sky Blue Sky outtake.
There’s also plenty of dark-hued power-pop, like on the Bragg-sung “Give Me A Nail,” and “When The Roses Bloom Again,” which is reminiscent of “Blood Of The Lamb” from Volume II. Even if there are no classics on par with “Yonder” or “California Stars” among the 17 remaining tracks—though Bragg’s prickly, poisoned love song “Ought To Be Satisfied Now” really should’ve surfaced before now—the “more of the same”-ness of Mermaid Avenue Vol. III certainly does no shame to the series’ impeccable batting average.
Bragg will once again be out on the road with this music later this year; outside of the must-have Mermaid Avenue “hits” that are mainstays of Wilco’s set list, Tweedy will keep his distance. But no matter the backstage contentiousness, Mermaid Avenue remains a lovable chapter in the story of an American icon, and two of his worthy musical offspring. The chair, as it were, was well taken care of.