Bass Players To Know: John Stirratt
After attending a recent Wilco performance, I came face to face with the facts. This is a band that has existed for twenty-five years. They’ve consistently released critically acclaimed albums and have continued to grow their audience through exceptional live performances and creative release strategies. They’ve toured the world, won Grammy awards, and have had successful collaborations as individuals and as a band. They also happen to have one mighty fine bass player — John Stirratt — who you should know. As a founding member of Wilco, Stirratt has brought exceptional tone, clever parts, and enchanting vocal harmonies to the stage and studio. His successful side project, The Autumn Defense, features him in multiple roles: producer, writer, guitarist, vocalist, bass player, etc., alongside fellow Wilco member, Pat Sansone. His continual involvement and influence on the world of Alternative Rock and Americana is worthy of note, as are his uniquely crafted bass lines.
Who Is John Stirratt?
Born in New Orleans in 1967, Stirratt grew up in Louisiana and attended the University of Mississippi in Oxford. While in school, Stirratt’s band The Hilltops opened for Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy’s band at the time. The Hilltops supported Uncle Tupelo as they toured the Midwest and when Tweedy switched from playing bass to guitar, Stirratt took over the role. By the early 1990s, The Hilltops had disintegrated and members of Uncle Tupelo decided to go their separate ways. At that juncture, Tweedy formed Wilco, asking Stirratt to join on bass.
Since 1994, Wilco has released eleven studio albums, including A Ghost Is Born (2004), which won the Grammy award for Best Alternative Music Album and for Best Recording Package. They were trusted to collaborate with Billy Bragg to write music and melodies to the lyrics of folk legend Woody Guthrie. This collaboration resulted in three records and the box set, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. By 2005, Tweedy finally solidified the current line-up of the band with Stirratt as the only original member. With the additions of Glenn Kotche (drums/percussion), Nels Cline (guitar), Mikael Jorgensen (keys), and Pat Sansone (guitars/utility), they released the live album Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (2005). Since then, they’ve continued to release studio records, tour the world, and solidify their reputation as one of America’s most influential rock bands.
While still a member of Wilco, Stirratt formed The Autumn Defense with friend and multi-instrumentalist, Pat Sansone. They released their first album, The Green Hour, in 2001, featuring both Stirratt and Sansone as writers and producers. They have released a total of six records and continue to collaborate in and outside of Wilco. In addition to working in both groups, Stirratt has found the time to tour with Ray LaMontagne and record with groups including The Minus 5, Blue Mountain, and Laurie and John (a duo project with twin sister, Laurie).
Let’s Talk Style
After listening to Wilco’s records and finally seeing them live, one thing became clearly evident in their performance: the core rhythm section of the band is as much bass and guitar as it is bass and drums. What, exactly, does this mean? It means that Stirratt is capable of establishing a feel alongside any and all instruments — he listens intently and intuitively understands how the groove interacts with the dominating rhythmic force.
In many cases, Tweedy starts a song by strumming the guitar, acting as an unconventional “count-in” for the rest of the band. Instead of the drummer counting-in or keeping time on the high hat, Tweedy provides the pulse that ever so effortlessly propels the song. The bass locks in with his strumming hand as seamlessly as it does with a kick drum pattern and the band is off and running. As the song develops, often into a storm of chaos, noise, and extended soloing, Stirratt serves as the compass — the arrow that always points North. He’s the trusted source that the band relies upon to keep the ship moving in the right direction. In doing so, he assumes the role of the dominating rhythmic force and takes responsibility for the momentum of the band by being keenly aware of time, space, and preserving the song.
When it comes to composing parts, Stirratt frequently pulls from classic Soul and R&B style lines that favor the movement of root-5th-6th over a major chord or root-5th-b7th over a minor chord. He creates voice leading lines that subconsciously pull the band in the direction of the next chord, often with a four-note phrase or by boldly emphasizing the major 7th. In a very “McCartney-esk” manner, he favors scale-based melodies over arpeggiation and doesn’t shy away from giant leaps in register; his playing on “Dawned On Me” (The Whole Love), is a perfect example of bass playing excellence. He takes advantage of chord inversions, choosing the 3rd or 5th instead of the root, to add variety to what would otherwise be an obvious or monotonous approach. The essential ingredient to a band that pushes the boundaries of acceptable and accessible dissonance, Stirratt provides endearing creativity and a grounded attitude to the ever-evolving music of Wilco.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Born Alone” (Wilco: The Whole Love)
A perfect spotlight on Stirratt’s unique approach and exceptional tone, this bass part is essential to the harmonic and dynamic development of the song. Stirratt’s choice of register is key; he settles into a mid-neck root note (F, the I chord) and consciously decides to ascend or descend to the following chord in the progression (Bb, the IV chord). In other words, he doesn’t simply move in the same direction throughout the song, and instead, creates a more sophisticated part by intentionally jumping to a specific register. Furthermore, he plays with inversions and deliberately emphasizes the 3rd or 5th of the chord. This adds tension, variation, and intensity to what would have been a fairly static sounding progression.
“Handshake Drugs” (Wilco: Kicking Television: Live In Chicago)
As Tweedy strums the acoustic guitar to introduce the song, Stirratt enters with a cleanly executed and undeniably groovy bass line. Combining elements of classic R&B with melodic movement, his bass line provides momentum, harmonic definition, and ongoing interest. Stirratt and Tweedy serve as the fundamental elements of the rhythm section, the ever-present anchor that remains unshaken by the ornamentation, sonic layers, and chaotic atmosphere introduced by the other instrumentalists.
“Back Of My Mind” (The Autumn Defense: Once Around)
This composition alludes to the glory days of 1960s pop/rock, where the tones were warm and defined and the instrumentalists played synchronized lines crafted in an orchestral style. Throughout the progression of the verse, Stirratt again plays with register and inversions to add diversity to the overall chord voicings. His stellar harmonies blend brilliantly with Sansone and sparkle against the bells, driving piano, and bass leaps of the outro.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with John Stirratt? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!