When Wilco’s bassist John Stirratt heard that a group of people from the Mid-Coast were trying to restore the 1930s-era Waldo Theater in Waldoboro, he wanted to help.
Stirratt and his wife had moved to the area a few years earlier, full time, and they wanted to get involved in their new community. Stirratt offered to perform a 2018 benefit show in Waldoboro, along with the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra and other local bands. The show raised over $ 30,000 for the restoration project.
Maine folks who know Stirratt and his family say his low-key demeanor and desire to get involved in the community make it hard to imagine he’s a rock star. But as the original member of the influential rock band Wilco, founded in 1994, there is no doubt that he is.
âWhen you first meet John, you just think there’s no way anyone could be this nice,â said Keri Lupien from Waldoboro, chairman of the board of the Waldo Theater. “She’s a really modest person who really cares about this community.”
Stirratt will have a relatively short commute – as far as rock star travel goes – when he and Wilco perform at Thompson’s Point in Portland on Wednesday. The group recently embarked on a nationwide tour which was due to take place last year but was delayed by the pandemic.
Stirratt, who moved to the center of the coast from Chicago, said he found Maine an “incredible place” to hide as COVID-19 crippled other parts of the country. He enjoys being near the ocean and appreciates the maritime history of the region. He said he and his wife got involved with the Waldo Theater because they wanted to support the effort to restore and rejuvenate a community focal point. His wife, Crissy, is a member of the theater board.
âIt’s a really cool and important art deco theater for people here so we really wanted to help in any way we could,â said Stirratt, 53.
THE MAINE ROUTE
Stirratt lives “near Damariscotta” but said he preferred not to name the town in particular to protect his family’s privacy. They moved to Maine to be closer to his wife’s parents, who had also moved to the Midcoast area.
Stirratt grew up in New Orleans, where both of his parents were amateur musicians. Her father performed in Dixieland and standard jazz groups, while her mother sang traditional country music. He said he fell into music largely because his house had closets full of instruments.
âAs a kid I would find instruments put away, open cases and find a 1950s Gibson (guitar) or banjo,â Stirratt said. He said growing up in New Orleans allowed him to enjoy a wide range of music, from jazz and blues to rock and country.
He went to the University of Mississippi, where he joined a group called The Hilltops, which also included his twin sister. With The Hilltops and other bands he performed in college and throughout the South East in the late 1980s. It was then that he met members of the influential band from alternative country Uncle Tupelo, starring future Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
Stirratt said that he and his band mates at the time decided to call Uncle Tupelo’s management and ask if they could open for the best-known band at some point, and so Uncle Tupelo has booked a concert in Mississippi. He kept in touch with Tweedy and his band mates and in 1992 joined them as bassist and guitarist. Although the band did not have much commercial success, they did help inspire an alternative country sound among many other bands in the ’80s and’ 90s.
In 1994, Uncle Tupelo broke up, with Tweedy, Stirratt and other members forming Wilco. Two others, Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn, left to form Son Volt. Today, Tweedy, who writes most of the songs, and Stirratt are the only original Wilco members still in the group.
Stirratt said he first fell in love with Maine in the early 1990s, when Uncle Tupelo played a concert at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. His positive outlook on the state was cemented, he said, when Wilco performed a show in Camden in the late 1990s. He recalls stopping by Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro after the show, on the way back to Boston.
Stirratt’s wife had spent summers in Maine as a child. So when her parents moved to Maine for good a few years ago, it was an easy decision to move close to them, Stirratt said. They lived in Chicago for many years but had often thought about moving to Maine. Stirratt is an avid sailor and enjoys fishing and hiking.
BE ABLE TO STAY
When asked about Wilco’s long-term success, along with different generations of fans, Stirratt immediately points to Tweedy. The group has built a large and loyal fan base while influencing many other alternative rock musicians over the past 27 years. The band have won Grammys – including Best Alternative Music Album for “A Ghost is Born” in 2004 – and have their own annual music and art festival, Solid Sound in North Adams, Massachusetts, with the next scheduled. for May.
âFirst and foremost is Jeff’s restless and relentless creativity,â Stirratt said. “Jeff writes the songs because he never lacks quality material.”
Wilco’s current tour is to support his 2019 album “Ode To Joy” which features straightforward songs with acoustic guitars and lyrics about staying positive through tough times. Rolling Stone called it the band’s best recording in years and a “beautiful exercise in discouraged elevation.” The song âLove is Everywhere (Beware)â has a simple message: love is everywhere, despite the violence and turmoil of the world around us:
“Where the sunlight catches the lake / It’s frozen in flames / Under the sleepy town / With the riots raining / It’s all yours now / It’s all for you / Right away, right away more / Love is everywhere. “
The song “Everyone Hides”, although upbeat in tempo, has a slightly darker theme, that no one is exactly as it seems, not even yourself: “If You’re Selling Yourself On A Vision / A Dream Of Who you are / An idea of ââhow it should be / And a wish on a star / Remember, remember, it can’t be denied, everyone is hiding. “
Stirratt said he thought the songs on “Ode to Joy” were Tweedy’s attempt to find some optimism during a “dark and divisive time” in our country’s history.
âI think it’s still relevant now. There are flashes of light, and he’s trying to remind people of that with a song like ‘Love is Everywhere’, âStirratt said.
Besides his work at Wilco, Stirratt played in another band, The Autumn Defense, for about 20 years with his friend and compatriot Pat Sansone, originally from New Orleans. Stirratt is more dedicated to songwriting in The Autumn Defense and explores different sounds including late 60s British pop.
Stirratt said he was eager to start a tour with Wilco after a long layoff due to the pandemic, but admits he’s not sure what the experience will be like.
âWe’re in uncharted territory right now, things can change so quickly. But we’re just super excited to go out and play and make things as safe as possible for people, âStirratt said.
He is especially happy to play an outdoor show at Thompson’s Point, which has a large grassy area on the Fore River. He has fond memories of playing there on a “glorious night” about four years ago.
âThe sunsets are really beautiful there,â Stirratt said.