The British singer Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco collaborated to put to music and perform previously unheard lyrics written by American folk singer Woody Guthrie. The project was organized by Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie. The ensuing album "Mermaid Avenue" was released on the Elektra Records label on June 23, 1998. A second volume of recordings, "Mermaid Avenue Vol. II", followed in 2000. The projects are named after a song "Mermaid's Avenue" written by Guthrie. This was also the street in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York on which Guthrie lived.
According to Bob Dylan's autobiographical Chronicles, Woody Guthrie gave his unpublished songs to Dylan but Bob was unable to get them from Guthrie's family (he tells a story about a reluctant babysitter).
Nora Guthrie's liner notes in Mermaid Avenue indicate that it was her intention that the songs be given to a new generation of musicians who would be able to make the songs relevant to a younger generation. She therefore contacted singer-songwriter Billy Bragg in spring 1995 about recording some unreleased songs by her father, folk singer Woody Guthrie. Most of the songs were written late in Guthrie's life when he was unable to record due to the motor impairments of Huntington's disease. By the 1990s, Woody Guthrie had become a "relic" to the MTV generation, and Nora sought to establish a different legacy for the musician. To Nora, Bragg was "the only singer I knew taking on the same issues as Woody." Bragg was concerned, however, that his fans would not realize that the songs were written by Guthrie when he performed them on tour, so he decided to record the album with another band.
Bragg contacted Tweedy and Bennett about co-recording the album while Wilco was on the European segment of their Being There tour. Bragg was particularly fond of Being There because their influences extended farther back than the 1950s. Although Tweedy was indifferent to the offer, Bennett was enthused about recording songs of one of his idols—Bennett's previous band Titanic Love Affair was named after a Billy Bragg lyric. A recording contract between Bragg and Wilco was signed after a show at Shepherd's Bush Empire. Bragg mostly recorded the politically-charged lyrics, while Tweedy preferred to record lyrics that showcased Guthrie as a "freak weirdo." The recording of Mermaid Avenue began on December 12, 1997, and was the topic of BBC's Man in the Sand documentary film.
Tempers flared between Bragg and Wilco after the album was completed. Bennett believed that Bragg was overproducing his songs, a sharp contrast to Wilco's sparser contributions. Bennett called Bragg about the possibility of remixing Bragg's songs, to which Bragg responded with "you make your record, and I'll make mine, fucker." Eventually Bragg sent copies of his recordings to Chicago for Bennett to remix, but Bragg refused to use the new mixes on the album. The two parties were unable to establish a promotional tour and quarreled over royalties and guest musician fees.
Despite these conflicts, the album was released on June 23, 1998, and sold over 277,000 copies. The album received rave reviews from Robert Christgau and Rolling Stone, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. It also placed fourth on the Pazz & Jop critics poll for 1998 (right behind Bob Dylan's Live 1966).
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