Sometime around 1996, Nora Guthrie contacted Barking-born singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and asked him if he’d be interested in going through her father Woody’s archive of unused lyrics to see if any could be turned into completed songs. Despite initial reservations (this is Bob Dylan’s gig, thought Bragg, or Steve Earle’s or Springsteen’s or someone), Bragg agreed to take on the challenge.
However, he felt that as an Englishman, he couldn’t do the work of creating new Woody Guthrie songs on his own, and he contacted Wilco to ask if they wanted to collaborate with him. Wilco were hot off the success of Being There, and were still principally an alt. country band, with occasional West Coast influences. Not Okies, admittedly, but undoubtedly with more American soil on their boots than Bragg, however long he had been touring the US and making connections.
As documented in Kim Hopkins’s feature-length documentary, Man in the Sand, the sessions for Mermaid Avenue became fractious towards the end. There were some disputes over writing credits, and Jeff Tweedy wanted final say over the mix of the record, which Bragg felt was a bit much given Tweedy’s status as invitee to the project. A quote Tweedy gave to Greg Kot is revealing:
“I enjoyed working with Billy. He had a good sense of humor, the ability to laugh at himself. And at the same time, I was always suspect of him, as being somewhat full of [expletive]. I never did understand why we were recording songs about brown-shirted fascists clobbering people in the streets of Italy during the ’30s. […] For Jay [Bennett], it was an atrocity that some of Billy’s mixes would make the record. Instead of balancing instruments and allowing it to be an environment where it sounds like a singer and a band, his was very much a vocal solo mix, with a very far-away, easily palatable band. So squishy and soft and perfect. To me, the recordings we did for Volume 1 were very raw, almost crappy sounding. Whereas his didn’t sound crappy, they sounded chintzy. This faux glitz was on them, and to us that was antithetical to the idea behind the record.”
Bragg and Tweedy’s uneasy compromise was that Bragg would give Wilco the tapes to produce their own mixes, and Bragg and his long-term producer, who glories in the name Grant Showbiz, would mix it too. If Bragg preferred their own mixes of Bragg’s songs, those would be the mixes used on the record.
Once both parties had created their mixes, Bragg felt that he and Grant Showbiz had put together a great mix of Wilco’s California Stars, too, and he wanted that to be used on the album, rather than Wilco’s. The finished record does not indicate which mix was used for California Stars, but whichever it was, the song still stands as a highlight, along with Bragg’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Ingrid Bergman, Birds & Ships (for which Bragg brought in Natalie Merchant to sing the lead vocal) and Another Man’s Done Gone, which Bragg wrote, Bennett arranged for piano and Tweedy sang. If the songs written by Tweedy and Jay Bennett aren’t quite up to the level of Bragg’s (which could just be a personal-taste thing, or perhaps Wilco had bled themselves a bit dry working on Being There), California Stars stands up alongside any of Tweedy’s work, and quickly became a fan favourite that they still play at just about every gig.
It’s a lovely song, with a weary lope. At the same time that it gains a spring in its step from the idea of being home in California, it contains in its heart a sadness that the singer is not there but must keep working, keep moving, keep staying away. It may be a song about California by an Okie, but it’s a song for anyone, anywhere, who is not where they most want to be.