Nels Cline, A Guitarist For All Seasons

By Ross Boissoneau

Guitarist Nels Cline isn’t a name necessarily familiar to those who follow the charts, even though he’s been a part of the popular band Wilco since 2004 and he’s contributed to hundreds of recordings, as a sideman, studio guest, or bandleader or co-leader. That includes seven with the ironically-named Nels Cline Singers, despite the fact there’s nary a vocalist in sight.

Not bad for a man who describes himself as a “sonic explorer and guitar renegade” on his website. Seems pretty appropriate. In some ways that’s been fueled by the fact he was never content to play the hits of the day – any day – in a cover band. “I never played in bar bands,” he says. Nope, he’s always made his own way in the music world, initially alongside his twin brother, drummer Alex Cline, with whom he still occasionally collaborates.

Among his influences are such disparate names as Bartok, Weather Report, Pink Floyd, Television, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. He cites three other artists as his primary inspirations: The Byrds, Ravi Shankar and Jimi Hendrix.

Nels Cline

Nels Cline

So it makes perfect sense that he’d join a multi-hyphenate alt-rock country-folk band while maintaining a solo career at the further ends of the jazz spectrum. “I play jazzish music once in a while, but my first influences were rock and roll and the blues,” says the 66-year-old guitarist. “I gave up (those forms) in the mid-70s and got into improvisational music and progressive rock.”

A funny thing happened on the way to joining the likes of Return to Forever or King Crimson. “Punk galvanized me,” he says, pointing to artists like Patti Smith, the Minutemen and the aforementioned Television. Their attitude and energy pushed him to new paths of expression. Plus there was the fact his previous experience seemed woefully out of touch. “It was suspect to play anything in a jazz-related idiom,” he says.

That still doesn’t really explain his joining Wilco, the band fronted by singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy, which mines the veins of alternative rock, Americana, even country and folk. He even joked to fellow guitarist Julian Lage, with whom he also shares a band partnership, that he wasn’t born with the Americana gene. Yet here he and they are, 16 years into a musical partnership that’s showcased Cline’s contributions to the band’s alternative folk/rock sound.

It’s clear from conversation that he immensely enjoys the music and his musical comrades. He’s got nothing but praise for the band, including – perhaps especially – bandleader Jeff Tweedy. “I verge on awe of Jeff’s songwriting. The songs just fly out of him,” he says. “They’re always fantastic.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to performing, writing and recording with Wilco or any others of his fellow musicians. Some musicians took that time to re-energize, even record multiple albums remotely. For Cline, the result was anything but positive. “I’m still reeling from having too much time to gaze at my navel,” he says, noting that self-doubt was his biggest enemy. “I looked back on my personal recorded output and think, ‘Did I feel that entitled? What the hell was I thinking?’ There was too much pandemic time.”

As the restrictions eased, he found himself playing again with his musical compatriots. That included recording with Wilco, which released Cruel Country in May of 2022 before touring Europe and America. Cline says the music flowed out of Tweedy, and he and the rest of the band embraced it all, and 21 songs made it onto the recording. “He was writing a country song a day. Certain songs I heard, I thought, ‘I don’t know if these are Wilco songs, but I love them.’”



He also embraces sharing the studio and the bandstand with fellow axe-slingers, whether that’s Lage or Pat Sansone of Wilco, who he calls “a bad-ass guitarist.” That moniker could also be applied to Cline, of course. But he says he tries to avoid any guitar heroics or overplaying. “I just try to stay out of the way, play what the songs want.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t embrace the opportunity to rock out when the situation demands it. Such as on the tune “Many Worlds” from Cruel Country. “We jam at the end,” he says of his work with Sansone, though he still thinks of it as less a musical duel and more an exchange between them. “It’s more like lattice work with tandem guitars. Conversation, not heroics.”

The latest iteration of his solo career is Share the Wealth, a 2020 release with an expanded edition of his long-running project The Nels Cline Singers: saxophonist and punk-jazz iconoclast Skerik, keyboardist Brian Marsella, bassist Trevor Dunn, longtime collaborator and drummer Scott Amendola, and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. The All Music Guide says its influences are clear: electric Miles, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, John Coltrane primary among them. Skerik’s frenetic sax does echo Coltrane in places, while Marsella’s overdriven electric piano stirs memories of Bitches Brew. But it also bows to the droning sound of Indian music, and Cline’s guitar takes it places those predecessors seldom if ever went.

All told, he’s contributed to more than 200 recordings, including at least 30 for which he is leader or co-leader. Cline has received many accolades, including being anointed as both one of 20 “new guitar gods” and one of the top 100 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone.

Not bad for a guy who considers himself fortunate to have been able to embrace all his musical options without spending time at a so-called day job. “I got lucky. I never tried to do anything to make a living other than play. I did music I liked with people I liked,” he said.

Ross Boissoneau is a regular contributor to Something Else! Reviews, Northern Express and Local Spins. He’s written for the All Music Guide, Jazziz and Progression Magazines, and is a member of the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Ross Boissoneau

One thought on “Nels Cline, A Guitarist For All Seasons

  1. Fine article. I saw Cline and Lage a few years back. And of course, Wilco. What this article turned me on to that I’d been unaware of is the music of the Nels Cline Singers. After reading it, I watched “Segunda” on YouTube. Fantastic combo of sights and sound! Thank you!

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