By now, Daniel Cook Johnson is used to answering the question, “What’s wrong with Wilco?” but he keeps wondering why people have to ask.
The alt-country band — which seems to cover every genre — sells out concerts and regularly makes best-of lists.
“Barack Obama even said he loved them,” he says, recalling how the former president not only put the Chicago band on its 2012 campaign playlistbut also featured them at a Live Aid concert in 2005 while still a senator.
“It makes me wonder why do I have to explain who this group is every time I mention them,” Johnson asks.
If Johnson looks exasperated, he really isn’t. He’s quite patient, actually. And he’s probably the best person to explain the turmoil around Wilco, having attended at least 20 gigs since the band debuted in the mid-’90s.
For longtime fans helping to sell shows and curious new fans, he hopes his new book, “Wilcopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to the Music of America’s Best Band,” offers a healthy dose of extra credit in knowledge. from Wilco.
The book, released September 17, is a comprehensive album-by-album, song-by-song look at the alt-country band that seeks to provide the stories behind the band’s extensive back catalog. This covers about 260 entries. Then there are entries for Wilco references in movies and TV shows, collaborations, and other notable moments.
“Hopefully someone who’s been here from the start finds something new,” he said.
And for the others, “When I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about (Bob) Dylan. I took a book.
Johnson, 50, is a local writer who grew up in Chapel Hill. He has written a weekly “Film Picks” column for The News & Observer since 2011. , the book’s timing couldn’t be more perfect.
Johnson spoke with The News & Observer about the origins of the book and whether Wilco has any idea of its existence. Here are excerpts.
Q: For the uninitiated, how would you describe Wilco?
A: I consider them first and foremost as a rock band. But it’s a rock band that has a country touch to it. And folklore. … That would kind of put them in the corner. There’s punk stuff from The Minutemen and The Replacements. The 80s punk scene is mixed. There is even electro.
There are many genres going on. A lot of songs could be country or rockabilly songs. Or like Radiohead. They were called the “American Radiohead”, at the time of (the album) “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”. They had broken away from country hues and were becoming increasingly difficult to categorize. I don’t think that’s accurate, but it’s the label that’s stuck on.
Q: You say they are obscure but have a cult. Why did their music and the band endure?
A: There was a real progression from album to album and genre to genre that formed into a mainstream audience. Sometimes the following can drift off and bring new people together, depending on the reaction to the new album.
Q: You said you first heard the band working at a record store in Greensboro. What do you remember?
A: Wilco’s debut album, “AM” was put on. This is where I heard them for the first time. I liked them. But it took time. The second album, “Being There”, was a double album. That’s when I became a big fan. Everything I loved about a rock band was on this album.
Q: Was there a feeling you had when you first heard their music?
A: It had to do with songwriting. I like a strong lyrical perspective. You immediately know what they are talking about. And their support is improving. I’m a huge Dylan fan. I like when the lyrics are strong, precise and clear. And also have killer arrangements behind them. That’s what introduced me to (original band member) Jeff Tweedy and his style of music.
Q: How many concerts have you been to?
A: I should count. It’s about 20. Since the mid 90’s, I haven’t seen many of them then. It was more in the 2000s. There was a great one at Duke in 2003. It was a great day. They weren’t so huge that the place was overrun with people.
They’re playing Koka Booth (in Cary) next month. I saw them there in 2008. It was just beautiful. All the shows I’ve seen there have been memorable.
Johnson wrote for an independent film website and began researching other topics he could write about. He decided on a weekly Wilco-themed spotlight on concert setlists and new songs.
Q: When did the idea for the book come to you?
A: Somewhere along the line I joked, “I could put it all together and be a ‘Wilcopedia’.” It was just a joke. Then I thought, why not? I liked the name. I put it together little by little. I got serious.
It was around 2012. jaw pressa publisher in the UK specializing in books on music and pop culture, decided to publish it.
Q: How did you decide how to organize it?
A: There are a number of books that have been influences. There are a number of rock encyclopedias. There’s a book about (David) Bowie by Nicholas Pegg called “The Complete David Bowie.” It broke everything. I am far from having read everything. There is a way to do this in terms of the breakdown of live TV appearances, movies, songs, and albums.
Somewhere along the line, it seemed like it would be more accessible chronologically, album by album, song by song. It just seemed to pop better.
Q: What’s in each entry?
A: The main thing is what we know: an anecdote about what it was recorded, when it was written, its life as a live song. It helps if there is a quote from Tweedy on the song. Maybe a critic or a writer has a perspective. Beyond that, I put out there what I think the song is about.
We are talking about a song played 1000 times. It’s a crowd pleaser. It’s a signature song. Then there’s this song that’s only been played once – and Tweedy says he didn’t like it. Then there are those songs in the middle that don’t get played much. You find out why.
Q: Was the band involved?
A: They had no idea. There have been books about them where the author was closer to the band. From the beginning, it was a real fan project. I’m happy to say they know now.
Q: So what’s the story?
A: One of their managers messaged me: “We heard about the book. Can we get copies for The Loft? The Loft is famous for their studio – Wilco’s headquarters (in Chicago). I said, “Yes, of course.” I sent four copies to Wilco management in Chicago. Then I didn’t hear much about it.
He recently heard from the director.
The manager said: “I’m going to personally hand it over to Jeff Tweedy today.” Even though I don’t hear any feedback, I like that it’s in their orbit.
Last week, he was invited to be a guest on WilcoWorld Radio, an online radio show, to talk about the book.
It must mean something favorable, right?
▪ Daniel Cook Johnson will host a literary event September 17 at 8 p.m. at So & So Books, 704 N. Person St., Raleigh.
▪ Wilco will perform on October 16 at 7 p.m. at the Booth Amphitheater in Cary. Tickets start at $35. standamphithéâtre.com
This story was originally published September 11, 2019 6:02 p.m.