Wilco guitarist Nels Cline has long been hailed for his skill and stylistic diversity, as befits a six-string master who has collaborated with such varied artists as Rickie Lee Jones, Phil Lesh, Mike Watt, Anthony Braxton, Yoko Ono, Rufus Wainwright and Wadada Leo Smith.
“I don’t have an agenda, other than to make the music resonate and make the person whose music it is happy with the results,” said Cline, whose guitar work is also featured on albums by Elvis Costello, Joan Osborne, John Zorn and Henry Kaiser.
Surprisingly, given his remarkably eclectic resume, the Los Angeles native had a very different artistic focus when he launched his career four decades ago.
“I never had versatility as a goal as a young musician,” said Cline, currently on tour with Wilco in support of the admirably understated and contemplative “Cruel Country.”
“My idea of myself was akin to John Abercrombie or John McLaughlin, somebody with massive technique who could play electric and acoustic guitars, and completely improvised music — or somebody else’s original compositions — even better than my own. That’s where I saw myself going (from) rock ‘n’ roll and blues.
“I later ended up in bands playing punk and rhythm and blues, and that reinvigorated my desire to play what may be considered ‘popular music’ with vocalists and songwriters. So, I had to figure out how to fit into these different situations.”
Cline has succeeded on all fronts.
He is able to deftly adapt to each setting he plays in with equal skill, imagination and sensitivity. He enhances the music by leaving his ego at the door, although he soars with heady results when given the opportunity to solo on stage with Wilco — or with any of the multiple bands he leads when not working with Wilco.
“I can be somewhat stylistic, but I’m not sure I have a style,” Cline said, speaking from the upstate New York home he shares with his wife and periodic musical collaborator, Yuka Honda.
Cline’s profile in the rock world rose significantly after he joined Wilco in 2004. He has since been featured on eight albums by the acclaimed band, including this year’s “Cruel Country.”
His contributions to Wilco’s music, on record and in concert, have helped take its work to an even higher level. The band’s current tour features four or five songs nightly from “Cruel Country” and finds Cline performing on dobro as well as guitar.
“I love playing all this material, and it’s been going over really well,” said Cline, who fondly refers to himself as “the old man of Wilco.”
Do the other band members accord deference to him as the band’s senior member?
“No!” laughed Cline, who — at 66 — is 11 years older than Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy. “My jowls are coming in nicely. But I haven’t looked my age for years, so I can get away with murder playing with young rockers!”