Wilco – Common Courtesy
“It’s Just That Simple”, John Stirratt’s high lonesome moment on Wilco’s debut, suggested that singer-songwriter talent in the band ran deeper than frontman Jeff Tweedy. Further recorded proof was a different matter, at least until Stirratt and bandmates Jay Bennett and Ken Coomer found themselves with several months of down time from Wilco. While Tweedy was out touring with Golden Smog and becoming a new dad, the trio — augmented by former Wilco string player Max Johnston and Freakwater steel guitarist Bob Egan — spent time in the studio in Nashville and New Orleans recording as Courtesy Move (a name taken from an anachronistic radio spot done by outre Nashville evangelist Prophet Omega). It wasn’t long before what began as a side project emerged as a band in its own right.
“It immediately became our outlet,” said Coomer during a recent interview in Nashville. “The upcoming Wilco record is totally Jeff’s project; I honestly don’t think John or Jay saw where their songs fit in.” Stirratt agreed: “It was a chance for me to get my songs recorded. I was very glad I had a song on A.M., but the new Wilco record really has been Jeff’s baby.”
Coomer, a veteran of several bands, including Uncle Tupelo, was impressed with the egalitarian spirit at the Courtesy Move sessions, especially the way Stirratt and Bennett, the band’s principal songwriters, respected each other’s feelings and leadership in the studio. Bennett appreciated how the rest of the group helped flesh out the pair’s musical ideas. “The finished product is pretty damn communal,” he said. “I’d never been in a situation like that. I’d always been either helping somebody or doing my own thing.”
Courtesy Move’s “finished product” includes more than an album’s worth of material, some of which they’ve casually started shopping to labels. “California” is already scheduled for release as a single on the Rockamundo label in September. Like many of Bennett’s keyboard-textured originals, it’s more muted and has a stronger pop sensibility than the loose, raw country rock that hooked A.M. “Songs That Weren’t Finished” is dreamlike and crepuscular, something attributable to Egan’s steel guitar playing as much as Bennett’s passionate but hushed guitar and vocals.
Bennett, Stirratt and Coomer have only praise for what Egan brings to Courtesy Move. “Bob listens to a song and thinks about what’s missing instead of playing all over it,” observed Bennett. “He’s the kind of guy who’d say, ‘I don’t hear pedal steel on that, but I hear trumpet.’ It’s got a lot more to do with listening than chops, even though I could listen to Bob play steel guitar all day.”
Stirratt’s songs fall more along the soulful end of the country-rock continuum. “Those I’ll Provide” — a track left off A.M., although it was the first song finished for the record — would have sounded at home on one of The Band’s early LPs. [Editor’s note, in the interest of full disclosure: “Those I’ll Provide” appears on Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley, a new Bloodshot Records compilation produced on a volunteer basis by the writer of this article.]
Even so, both Stirratt and Bennett owe a considerable songwriting debt to FM radio and British pop. The band’s lush, unironic cover of the Bee Gees’ “Birdie Told Me” makes that plain enough: The song couldn’t be further removed from the prevailing alt-country orthodoxy that draws heavily on Uncle Tupelo’s legacy.
Stirratt admits he’s puzzled that some bands fixate on certain aspects of Uncle Tupelo — the booze references, for instance. Bennett agrees: “I can see young kids wanting to sound like Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo,” he said, “but, ultimately, you get to the point where you have to put all your influences together so that [what you’re playing] sounds like you.”
There’s certainly no lack of musical identity on the 20-odd tracks that Courtesy Move committed to tape this summer. As with Joe Henry’s latest record, the songs distance the group from much of what passes for Americana these days. And yet they don’t so much reject the form as stretch its boundaries, bringing it all back home to the rock and pop context from which it originated.
“Let’s face it, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll,” said Stirratt. “I’ve grown weary of the [alternative country] tag, and I know Wilco has as a band.” Bennett is likewise chagrined at the proliferation of gratuitous labeling. “I don’t think anyone ever called Badfinger a country rock band,” he observed, “but if they came out today they’d be lumped into that category.”
Categories notwithstanding, the question remains: What does the emergence of Courtesy Move hold for Wilco’s future? Bennett, Coomer and Stirratt — who are committed to touring behind the upcoming Wilco record but who also recently backed singer-songwriters Steve Forbert (in the studio) and Jeff Black (onstage) — clearly view Courtesy Move as an ongoing project. “I’d like to keep recording with these guys,” Stirratt says.
Bennett adds: “I really think that there’s the time and place for both [bands]. I wouldn’t think of asking Jeff [Tweedy] to stop playing with Golden Smog. After he’s been out with them, I’m sure he appreciates what’s unique about Wilco. I’m a firm believer that anything musical that anybody does contributes to everything else musical they do. You learn something with every project.”