Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
It is hard to remember that in 1998, when Mermaid Avenue was released, Billy Bragg was a well-respected leftist folkie, a former busker who had progressively cleaned up and expanded his sound, and he was probably at the height of his commercial popularity. By contrast, Wilco, which was struggling to emerge from the shadows of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, had released two albums – a debut that was not fawned over, and a follow-up that was critically adored, but far from a hit. The idea that within a few years, Wilco would become a critical and popular success, serve as an example of the music industry’s bizarre decision-making process, headline places like Madison Square Garden, and curate its own summer music festival, would probably have been scoffed at by most, including Jeff Tweedy.
Keep in mind as well that in 1998, the idea of putting out an album of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics with brand-new music was a bit unusual, but after Mermaid Avenue, it became almost common. Later albums from artists such as Jonatha Brooke, The Klezmatics and even Tweedy’s former Uncle Tupelo bandmate and nemesis Jay Farrar (along with Anders Parker, Will Johnson and Jim James) have followed this theme, as have single songs by artists as diverse as the Navajo group Blackfire and the punk provocateurs Anti-Flag. So, Mermaid Avenue was not only fabulous music, it helped to spawn a revival of interest in the music of Woody Guthrie, which can only be a good thing.