Weekend Listening: Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco
Listen while you read (volume may be loud):
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: