Weekend Listening: Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco

11 July 2014 by 2 Comments

weekend listening Weekends are an amazing time to go record shopping or to go for a long drive with the windows down and the radio loud. Weekend Listening gives you music for all of your upcoming adventures.

Listen while you read (volume may be loud):

Mermaid Avenue Billy Bragg Wilco Album: Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco (featuring Natalie Merchant)

Released: 1998 by Elektra

Recommended if you like: Old school country music, alt-country, amazing sounds in your earholes, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, folk music

Notable Tracks: “California Stars”, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (I guess, these are the songs I already knew from the album)

Mermaid Avenue was one of my first introductions to the alt-country genre–well, specifically, two tracks from Mermaid Avenue. When I worked at the University of Kentucky Starbucks back in the day (2003), we had this one CD that we played to freaking death called Mile Marker 383. (This was the store version that we played over the system–not the retail compilation, which is also excellent if you can get your hands on a copy, or you can listen to this Spotify playlist I made). This disc was a Who’s Who of alt-country and it made me fall in love with the genre. It had hundreds of songs by people like Neko Case, Steve Earle, The Old 97’s. We played nothing else if we could get away with it. I think our manager made us get in a little Christmas music.

I was enchanted by the Mermaid Avenue tracks on the Milemarker disc. The song “California Stars” especially got into my heart because I was dating a California boy at the time. (You might know him as my husband now). That was the song that prompted me to look this album up for a Weekend Listening post, where I found one of a song that I thought was lost ephemera, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.” I probably listened to that song ten times today; the combination of Billy Bragg’s slightly gravelly, slightly playful melody and Natalie Merchant’s harmonies are perfect and soul-soothing.

Mermaid Avenue transitions smoothly between folk/bluegrass songs and songs that sound more rock and roll, a la The Velvet Underground and other 60’s alternative sounds. At times, there’s a bit of country-rock fusion that reminds me of Johnny Cash. What makes it more interesting is that all of the songs are based off of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics–you know, folk giant Woody Guthrie? The title “Mermaid Avenue” comes from a Guthrie song, which was in turn based on a street where he lived in Brooklyn during a particularly prolific part of his life. Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked the musicians to stay faithful to their own sounds, though, so if you’re a fan of either Wilco or Billy Bragg, you’ll be into it.

Oh, and the first song has a literary reference–it’s called “Walt Whitman’s Niece.” YEP.

If you have no idea what alt-country is, don’t worry–we’re going to be talking more about it ASAP, because it rules. For now, just listen to Mermaid Avenue and enjoy, maybe at dusk out on the porch with some sippin’ whiskey (or moonshine).

Listen to Mermaid Avenue:

Buy on Amazon | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Grooveshark


Susie is the Bitch-in-Chief at IB and is also a contributor at Book Riot. She's an ice cream connoisseur, an art fanatic, a cat-mommy of three, and a wife. She runs the @thebooksluts Twitter account and may be slightly addicted.

2 thoughts on “Weekend Listening: Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco

  1. My first alt country love was Cuff The Duke, band from a small city near Toronto. A little twangier than what I usually listen to, but something got under my skin. Then Gordy Johnson from Big Sugar (a bitchin blues band from Windsor, Ontario) went on to form Grady, a bitchin alt country band based in Memphis (I think). After that, I was completely converted.

    I *will* check this out.

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