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Nels Cline: Guitar Anti-Hero

Nels Cline

Nels Cline leans forward, fingers flickering across his Jerry Jones 12-string electric guitar. He’s onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of Late Show With David Letterman, where cameras are rolling for a performance by Wilco, this decade’s quintessential American alternative-rock band. Lanky but dapper in a high-buttoned black suit, he looks the part of a Grand Ole Opry flatpicker, or maybe an undertaker. To his left are Jeff Tweedy, the group’s lead vocalist, and Leslie Feist, a featured guest. “However close we get sometimes,” they’re singing amicably, “it’s like we never met.”

The song is “You and I,” a three-minute soft-rock confection that earned Wilco its first No. 1 spot on the Triple-A radio chart. And Cline is aptly serving its needs, tracing chord arpeggios with a hint of twang. His contribution, subtle but substantial, has a lot to do with the mellow grace of the song. Over a closing tag, he fashions an obbligato behind the two singers, with a retro-trippy backmasking effect.

“That’s my tribute to the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday album,” he chuckles the following afternoon in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, during a break in his whirlwind schedule with the band. Moments later he’s talking about Lester Young with Billie Holiday, and the improvising tradition in country music, and the uncontrived genius of Jim Hall. It’s a typically discursive conversation for Cline, studded with self-conscious musical allusions, and it reflects the broad base of knowledge he brings to his playing.

As lead guitarist with Wilco since 2004, Cline has appeared prominently on two Top 5 albums and hundreds of concert stages. His value in the group probably can’t be overstated, both in terms of solo orchestration and the more cohesive elements of the music. Two years ago Rolling Stone included him in a roundup of 20 so-called New Guitar Gods, bestowing a fairly accurate epithet: “The Avant Romantic.”

But whatever his godhead status, Cline is hardly a new arrival. His career as an improvising musician stretches back to the 1970s. He made his first album more than 20 years ago, and has since appeared on dozens of others. He has released three with his working trio, the Nels Cline Singers, which has another one on the way. At 53, he’s about the same age as Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell, and like them he has carved his path through the modern-jazz labyrinth with an open mind and a personal style.

“When I first met him, jeez, his fingers would just be flying all over the place,” recalls Frisell, thinking back some 25 years. “Just as a guitar geek, man, how do you do that? But now it goes so far beyond that, too. It’s something in his imagination that, for me, is what music is all about. And he’s integrated the whole extra-guitar thing, all the electronic stuff, to the point where it’s totally organic. It’s just, like, amazing.”

Cline, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, has little capacity for the cocksure ego of a guitar hero. “I don’t go through life feeling particularly confident, in general,” he says. “The one area I feel the most confident in is spontaneous improvisation-and I’ve been able to do that with a lot of really great and likeminded people.”

The rest of this article may be found in the October 2009 issue of JazzTImes, on sale at newsstands or as a back issue at

Originally Published