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From rock to country and jazz, Wilco's Nels Cline says, 'I get to play all of this wonderful music'

Wilco returns to Fargo this weekend with a concert at Fargo Brewing.

Annabel-Mehran_Wilco_Highres.jpg
Nels Cline (left) and Wilco return to town on Sunday, Sept. 11.
Contributed / Annabel Mehran
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FARGO — Nels Cline is best known for playing guitar in the rock band Wilco . The past 18 years in one band is just scratching the surface of the guitarist’s reach and influence.

Since his 1981 debut, he’s played on more than 160 recordings, alongside everyone from Yoko Ono to Ornette Coleman, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Rickie Lee Jones, John Zorn and dozens more. He’s played punk with Mike Watt, noise rock with Thurston Moore and released more than 40 avant-garde and jazz recordings under his own name and groups, like the Nels Cline Singers, Nels Cline Trio and Nels Cline 4.

“I’m the luckiest guy in showbiz,” Cline says. “I get to play all of this wonderful music.”

He’ll be bringing some of that wonderful music to Fargo Brewing Company on Sunday night, Sept. 11, when he and Wilco return to town .

The group’s most recent album, “Cruel Country,” is being heralded as one of the group’s best, a double-disc that draws on traditional country and folk music. While some call it a country album, Cline sees it as more of a continuation of the Wilco sound.

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Wilco is, from left, Nels Cline, John Stirratt, Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotchke, Mikael Jorgensen and Patrick Sansone.
Contributed / Special to The Forum

“We were definitely not setting out to write a country record,” the guitarist says.

The project started during the COVID-19 pandemic when the band couldn’t all meet in its Chicago recording studio. Jeff Tweedy, the group’s founding singer-songwriter, sent a song a day to members as more of an exercise to keep them together musically as a group.

“Jeff was writing a diverse group of songs. Some of them were so incredibly delightful country and folk songs in story and content that I didn’t think they’d be Wilco songs,” Cline says.

Instead, he got even more excited thinking about the songs’ possibilities outside of the group.

“I thought, ‘Jeff could make this a solo album and I’ll learn mandolin and we’ll have a string orchestra,’” Cline says enthusiastically.

Instead, with so many songs, the ones that worked together best are the ones that formed “Cruel Country,”’ Cline says, adding that the group could head back to the studio early next year with some of the other tunes for another album.

While some are celebrating “Cruel Country,” Wilco’s 12th studio album, for its twang, Cline points out the group has embraced country sounds in the past.

“‘Being There’ also has some country elements,” he says, referring to the group’s second album. “The country strains are a bit stronger here. Pat Sansone plays a badass telecaster all over it. All of these flavors gel in a more consistent country album.”

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Whether it’s country, indie rock, folk or jazz, Cline approaches it the same way.

“I don’t differentiate, though Wilco does have a theatrical aspect with the staging and lights. I’m comfortable in the pageantry of a rock show,” he says. “Jazz is creative and improvisational. I have a million notes buzzing in my head at any time, so it’s hard to be precise. My strong suit is improvising.”

Now 66, Cline remembers the first times he heard The Byrds and Jimi Hendrix, the music that turned him onto guitar.

“That made my life’s path clear,” he says. “My focus wasn’t to be flamboyant like Hendrix. I was on a more modest path sonically and the Allman Brothers became my big love.”

So when Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks asked Cline to join his Tedeschi Trucks Band onstage at New York’s legendary Beacon Theatre in 2019, Cline jumped at the opportunity.

“They spark my heart,” Cline says of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. “It was heaven for a guy who grew up on the Allman Brothers.”

The admiration is mutual.

The group will bring its 'I Am the Moon' project to Moorhead this weekend.

“Nels is one of our favorite people. He is so unique and layered,” Trucks says. “He took a solo to a place I never imagined and ripped the roof off the place. He’s a wizard, man. When you play with Nels, it frees you up and gives you all of the possibilities.”

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Unbeknownst to Trucks, he helped lift Cline out of a depression during the height of the pandemic.

Cline and his wife, Yuka Honda of the band Cibo Matto, relocated from Brooklyn to upstate New York in the early days of the pandemic and the move paid off as Cline started working on a number of compositions for different groups.

“I was kind of looking forward to getting off the treadmill for a month or two. I wasn’t expecting two years,” he says. “Then it kind of imploded. I started thinking, ‘What the hell does the world need to hear more of me for?’ I get self-conscious and depressed.”

That’s until Trucks invited Cline to sit in for a set at Red Rocks in 2021 that included the Allman Brothers' “Dreams,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

“That catapulted me out of my funk. I adore them,” Cline says.

The experience helped Cline stay upbeat and focused when he caught COVID earlier this year while Wilco was on the road in Spain. Cline stayed behind in the hotel until he was healthy and safe to rejoin the band.

“It was a dangerous precedent that they could play four shows without me,” he says with a laugh. “I’m just a guy that likes to play.”

If you go

What: Wilco with openers The Cactus Blossoms
When: 6:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11
Where: Outdoors at Fargo Brewing Co., 610 N. University Drive
Info: Tickets range from $39.50 to $85 for this ID-only show; jadepresents.com

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