When Wilco bassist John Stirratt heard a group of people in the midcoast were trying to restore the 1930s vintage Waldo Theatre in Waldoboro, he wanted to help out.

Stirratt and his wife had moved to the area a few years earlier, full-time, and they wanted to get involved with their new community. Stirratt offered to play a benefit show in 2018 in Waldoboro, along with the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra and other local acts. The show raised more than $30,000 for the restoration project.

People in Maine who know Stirratt and his family say his low-key attitude and desire to be involved in the community make it hard to imagine he’s a rock star. But as an original member of the influential rock band Wilco, founded in 1994, there’s no question he is.

“When you first meet John, you just think, there’s no way somebody can be this nice,” said Keri Lupien of Waldoboro, president of the Waldo Theatre board. “He’s a genuinely unassuming 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 play a show at Thompson’s Point in Portland on Wednesday. The band recently began a national tour that was supposed to happen last year but was delayed by the pandemic.

Stirratt, who moved to the midcoast from Chicago, said he found Maine to be an “amazing place” to hunker down as COVID-19 paralyzed other parts of the country. He loves being near the ocean and appreciates the area’s maritime history. He said he and his wife got involved with the Waldo Theatre because they wanted to support the effort to restore and rejuvenate a community focal point. His wife, Crissy, is a theater board member.

“It’s a really cool art deco theater, and important to people here, so we really wanted to help in any way we could,” said Stirratt, 53.

John Stirratt, right with guitar, was part of a concert in Waldoboro in 2018 to benefit the Waldo Theatre restoration. Photo by Liz Hayford, Windy Hill Photography

THE ROAD TO MAINE

Stirratt lives “near Damariscotta” but said he’d rather not name the specific town to protect his family’s privacy. They moved to Maine to be close to his wife’s parents, who also had moved to the midcoast area.

Stirratt grew up in New Orleans, where both his parents were amateur musicians. His father played in Dixieland and standard jazz bands, while his mother sang traditional country music. He said he fell into music largely because his house had closets full of instruments.

“As a kid, I was finding instruments tucked away, opening cases and finding a ’50s Gibson (guitar) or a banjo,” said Stirratt. He said growing up in New Orleans gave him an appreciation for a diverse array of music, from jazz and blues to rock and country.

He went to the University of Mississippi, where he joined a band called The Hilltops, which also featured his twin sister. With The Hilltops and other groups, he played around the college and throughout the Southeast in the late 1980s. That’s when he met the members of the influential alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, featuring future Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.

Stirratt said he and his bandmates at the time decided to call Uncle Tupelo’s management and ask if they could open for the better-known band at some point, and so Uncle Tupelo booked a gig in Mississippi. He stayed in touch with Tweedy and his bandmates and, in 1992, joined them as bassist and guitarist. Although the group didn’t have wide commercial success, it helped inspire an alt-country sound among many other bands in the ’80s and ’90s.

Wilco bassist John Stirratt has been living in Maine with his family for about five years. Photo by Zoran Orlic

In 1994, Uncle Tupelo split 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 band.

Stirratt said he first became enamored with Maine in the early 1990s when Uncle Tupelo played a gig at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. His positive view of the state was cemented, he said, when Wilco played a show in Camden in the late 1990s. He remembers stopping at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro after the show, on the drive back to Boston.

Stirratt’s wife had spent summers in Maine as a child. So when her parents moved to Maine permanently a few years ago, it was an easy decision to move near them, Stirratt said. They lived in Chicago for many years but had thought often of moving to Maine. Stirratt is an avid sailor and enjoys fishing and hiking.

STAYING POWER

When asked about Wilco’s long-term success, with different generations of fans, Stirratt immediately points to Tweedy. The band has built a large and loyal fan base while influencing many other alt-rock musicians over the last 27 years. The band has won Grammys – including best alternative music album for “A Ghost is Born” in 2004 – and hosts its own annual music and arts festival, Solid Sound in North Adams, Massachusetts, the next one scheduled for May.

“First and foremost, it’s the restless and relentless creativity of Jeff,” said Stirratt. “Jeff writes the songs because he never lacks for quality material.”

Maine resident John Stirratt, far right, and the rest of his bandmates in Wilco, including Jeff Tweedy, front and center, will play Thompson’s Point in Portland on Wednesday. Photo by Annabel Mehran

Wilco’s current tour is to support its 2019 album “Ode To Joy,” which features straight-forward songs with acoustic guitars and some lyrics about staying positive in tough times. Rolling Stone called it the group’s best recording in years and a “beautiful exercise in the downhearted uplift.” The song “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” has a simple message – that love is everywhere, despite the violence and turbulence of the world around us:

“Where the sunlight grabs the lake/It’s frozen in the flames/Beneath the sleeping town/With the riots raining down/It’s all yours now/It’s all for you/Right now, right now/Love is everywhere.”
The song “Everyone Hides,” while upbeat in tempo, has a slightly darker theme, that nobody is exactly as they seem, not even yourself: “If you’re selling yourself on a vision/A dream of who you are/An idea of how it should be/And a wish upon a star/Remember, remember, it can’t be denied, everyone hides.”

Stirratt said he thinks the songs on “Ode to Joy” were Tweedy’s attempt to find some optimism during a “bleak and divisive period” in our country’s history.

“I think it’s still relevant now. There are glimmers of light, and he’s trying to remind people of that with a song like ‘Love is Everywhere,’ ” said Stirratt.

Besides his work in Wilco, Stirratt has been playing in another band, The Autumn Defense, for about 20 years with friend and fellow New Orleans native Pat Sansone. Stirratt gets to do more songwriting in The Autumn Defense and explore different sounds, including late ’60s British pop.

Stirratt said he was eager to start touring with Wilco after a long layoff from the pandemic, but he admits he’s not sure what the experience will be like.

“We’re in uncharted territory right now, things can change so quickly. But we’re just super excited to get out and play and make things as safe as possible for people,” Stirratt said.

He’s especially happy to be playing an outdoor show at Thompson’s Point, which has a large grassy space on the Fore River. He has fond memories of performing there during a “glorious night” about four years ago.

“The sunsets are really lovely there,” Stirratt said.


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