By now, Daniel Cook Johnson is used to answering the question, “What’s the big deal about Wilco?” but he keeps wondering why people have to ask.
The alt-country band — which seems to span genres — sells out concerts and regularly makes best-of lists.
“Barack Obama even said he liked them,” he says, recalling how the former president not only put the Chicago band on his 2012 campaign playlist, but also introduced them at a Live Aid concert in 2005 when he was still a senator.
“That makes me wonder, why do I have to explain who this band is every time I mention them,” Johnson asks.
If Johnson sounds exasperated, he’s really not. He’s quite patient, in fact. And he’s probably best suited to explain the fuss around Wilco, having been to at least 20 concerts since the band got its start in the mid-’90s.
For the lifelong fans who help sell out shows, and the new, curious fans, he’s hoping his new book, “Wilcopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to the Music of America’s Best Band,” offers a healthy dose of extra credit in Wilco knowledge.
The book, released Sept. 17, is an exhaustive album-by-album, song-by-song look at the alt-country band that seeks to provide the stories behind the band’s vast catalog. That covers about 260 entries. Then there are entries for Wilco references in movies and TV shows, collaborations and other noteworthy moments.
“I would hope someone who has been there from the beginning would find something new,” he said.
And for the others, “When I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about (Bob) Dylan. I picked up a book.”
Johnson, 50, is a local writer who grew up in Chapel Hill. He has written a weekly “Film Picks” column for The News & Observer since 2011. With Wilco set to release their 11th studio album Oct. 4, “Ode to Joy,” and an upcoming show Oct. 16 at Booth Amphitheatre, the timing of the book couldn’t be more perfect.
Johnson spoke with The News & Observer about the book’s origins, and whether Wilco has any idea of its existence. Here are excerpts.
Q: For the uninitiated, how you do you describe Wilco?
A: I think of them as a primarily as a rock band. But they’re a rock band that has country tinges to their stuff. And folk. ... That would be kind of putting them in the corner. There is punk stuff from The Minutemen and The Replacements. The ‘80s punk scene is mixed in. There’s even electronica.
There’s a lot of genres going on. A lot of songs could be country songs or rockabilly. Or Radiohead-like. They were called the “American Radiohead,” around the time of (album) “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” They had broken from country tinges and were becoming harder to categorize. I don’t think that’s accurate, but that’s the label that’s stuck.
Q: You say they’re obscure but they have a cult following. Why has their music and the group endured?
A: There’s been a real progression from album to album and genre to genre that’s formulated into a big following. Sometimes the following may drift off and gather new folks, depending on the reaction to the new album.
Q: You said you first heard the band working at a record store in Greensboro. What do you remember about it?
A: Wilco’s first album, “A.M.” was put on. That’s when I first heard them. I kind of liked them. But it took awhile. The second album, “Being There,” it was a double album. That’s when I became a huge fan. Everything I loved about a rock band was in that album.
Q: Was there a feeling you had when you first heard their music?
A: It had to do with songwriting. I like a strong lyrical perspective. You immediately know what they’re talking about. And the backing for them is enhancing. I’m a huge Dylan fan. I love when lyrics are strong and set and sharp. And also have a killer arrangements behind them. That’s what keyed me into (original band member) Jeff Tweedy and his style of music.
Q: How many concerts have you been to?
A: I’d have to count. It’s around 20. From the mid-’90s, I didn’t see many then. It was more in the 2000s. There was an excellent one at Duke in 2003. It was a beautiful day. They weren’t so huge that the place was overrun by people.
They’re playing Koka Booth (in Cary) next month. I saw them there in 2008. That was just beautiful. All of the shows I’ve seen of there’s have been memorable.
Johnson wrote for a website about independent movies and started looking for other topics he could write about. He decided on a weekly Wilco-themed spotlight on concert setlists and new songs.
Q: At what point did the idea for the book come to you?
A: Somewhere along the line, I joked, “I could put it all together and be a ‘Wilcopedia.’” It was just a joke. Then, I was like, why not? I liked the name. I put it gradually together. I got serious about it.
That was around 2012. Jawbone Press, a publisher in the United Kingdom that specializes in books on music and pop culture, decided to publish it.
Q: How did you decide how to organize it?
A: There are a number of books that were influences. There are a number of rock encyclopedias. There is a book on (David) Bowie by Nicholas Pegg called “The Complete David Bowie.” It broke everything down. I’ve not come close to reading it all. There’s a way to do this in terms of breaking down TV appearances, movies and songs and live albums.
Somewhere along the line, it seemed like it would be more accessible chronologically, album by album, song by song. It just seemed to pop better.
Q: What’s in each entry?
A: The basics are what are known: an anecdote of what it was recorded, when it was written, its life as a live song. It helps if there’s a Tweedy quote about the song. Maybe a critic or writer has a perspective. Away from that, my putting out there what I think the song is about.
We’re talking about a song that’s played 1,000 times. It’s a crowd-pleaser. It’s a signature song. Then there’s that song only played once — and Tweedy says he didn’t like it. Then there are those songs in the middle not played a lot. You find out why.
Q: Was the group involved?
A: They had no idea. There have been books about them where the author was closer to the band. From the start this was a real fan project. I am happy to say they know about it now.
Q: So, what’s the story?
A: One of their managers messaged me, “We heard about the book. Can we get some copies for The Loft?” The Loft is famously their studio — Wilco headquarters (in Chicago). I said, “Yeah, of course.” I sent four copies to Wilco management in Chicago. Then I didn’t hear much about it.
He recently heard from the manager.
The manager said, “I’m going to personally hand it to Jeff Tweedy today.” Even if I don’t hear any feedback, I like that it’s in their orbit.
Last week, he was invited to be a guest on WilcoWorld Radio, an online radio broadcast, to talk about the book.
That must mean something favorable, right?
▪ Daniel Cook Johnson will have a book event Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. at So & So Books, 704 N. Person St., Raleigh.
▪ Wilco will perform Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at Booth Amphitheatre in Cary. Tickets start at $35. boothamphitheatre.com