When John Stirratt began playing music in the mid-80s he was always the guy out front–he led his high school cover band, Rain, and then the Hilltops, a scrappy country-punk combo he formed at the University of Mississippi. But it’s as the bassist in someone else’s group–Wilco–that Stirratt, now 36, has achieved his greatest recognition. Circles, the new release from the Autumn Defense, is only the second album he’s made with a project of his own since 1992.

The Hilltops were popular around their home base of Oxford, Mississippi, but dissolved in 1991 after putting out their second full-length; coleader Cary Hudson and Stirratt’s bass-playing twin sister Laurie moved to Los Angeles, where they started the alt-country act Blue Mountain. Soon John was living at home with his parents in New Orleans.

He wrote songs and spent a lot of time with his mother, who would soon die of Hodgkin’s disease. He played in the Bluerunners, a raw Cajun-rock band, and put out an album of his demos under the name the Gimme Caps, but by the spring of 1992 he was more or less idle. “I was pretty lost for a while after losing my mother, and I was definitely looking for a good time and camaraderie,” he says. “I really had a lack of drive.”

Back in his Hilltops days Stirratt had befriended the members of Uncle Tupelo. He set up a gig for them in Oxford, and they got the Hilltops a Saint Louis show. Over the next few years the two bands toured and jammed together occasionally, so he wasn’t totally surprised when Uncle Tupelo’s manager, Tony Margherita, called and asked him to be the band’s guitar tech for a European tour that fall. The job had been handled till then by Brian Henneman, who was busy with his own group, the Bottle Rockets, and who according to Stirratt didn’t care for the continent anyway. “The cigarettes were weird,” he explains. “That was the main reason he didn’t go, because he couldn’t get Camel Lights.”

For six months Stirratt changed strings for guitarist Jay Farrar and bassist Jeff Tweedy, in Europe and the U.S. In their downtime Stirratt and the band played music together, and they became close friends. Late in the spring of 1993, he was invited up to Saint Louis, where Uncle Tupelo was rehearsing for what would be its final album. Tweedy wanted to play guitar on his own songs, so Stirratt ended up filling in on bass. After blasting through the material a few times the band headed down to Austin, where they recorded Anodyne in late May and early June. Stirratt ended up on two-thirds of the songs.

Uncle Tupelo toured in support of Anodyne that summer and fall, with Stirratt playing bass and guitar as needed. Around Christmas Farrar and Tweedy announced they’d decided they would part ways in May, once the band had finished the dates it had already booked. “There was tension, but there was also a lot of fun,” Stirratt says of the ensuing shows. “It wasn’t until near the end of the tour that I really believed it was going to end.” By the last gig Tweedy had asked Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston to play in his new band, and he’d already written a number of the songs that would turn up on Wilco’s debut, A.M. They cut the album just a month later.

In Wilco Stirratt was a core member, and he ended up singing his ballad “It’s Just That Simple” on A.M. But the album was dominated by Tweedy’s writing, and Stirratt had plenty of other songs lying around, so he, Coomer, Johnston, and new Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett formed a side project called Courtesy Move. They tried to record an album in New Orleans in February 1996, in a brief window between touring and going back into the studio with Wilco, but couldn’t finish it. Bennett eventually used some of the recordings on his 2002 album with Ed Burch, The Palace at 4 AM (Part 1), but Stirratt never got back to his songs. “It’s a shame,” he says. “That represented the big hole in my songwriting life. I should’ve made those songs happen in some form.”

Wilco stayed busy for the next couple of years, recording two more albums (plus one with Billy Bragg) and touring steadily. But the next time Stirratt got a chance to do his own thing he seized it. In late 1998 he reconnected with multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, whom he’d gone to school with in Mississippi. “We had really similar tastes,” Stirratt says, “and we both knew everything from [the Love album] Forever Changes.” Within a few months they’d gone into Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio to begin work on the Stirratt songs that would become The Green Hour, the first album by the Autumn Defense. Though some friends pitched in, Stirratt and Sansone did most of the playing in a series of sessions over the next year, and Sansone’s deft arrangements complemented Stirratt’s sweet 60s-style tunefulness nicely, surrounding the melodies with brass, mellotron, marimba, sitar, and glockenspiel. But by the time Stirratt finally put the record out on his own Broadmoor label in early 2001, Wilco was in the midst of making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The Autumn Defense played only a handful of shows to support the release.

A few months before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, the duo reconvened. This time Sansone brought in a few tunes, they collaborated on a few others, and they worked out some gorgeous vocal harmonies while scaling back the instrumental palette a bit, resulting in the more direct, contemporary sounding Circles (Arena Rock). It’s easy to hear the influence of John Lennon, but I’m reminded most of the exquisitely forlorn (and Beatlesque) songwriting of Elliott Smith. For Stirratt, recording the album in a few quick bursts (in Nashville, New York, and Chicago) was a welcome change from the now famously meticulous process of making the Wilco album.

Stirratt says that more than ever before, Wilco–now finishing its next record, tentatively due in late spring–feels like an equal partnership: “I have a really good situation collaboratively in both bands.” And this time around, his schedule will allow him to take the Autumn Defense on the road. They’ll tour the U.S. in February and March with a five-piece lineup including bassist Brad Jones, drummer Greg Wiz, and pedal steel player John Pirruccello, all of whom play on the new record. The band contributed the sound track to Evergreen, a forthcoming independent feature film by first-time director Enid Zentelis, and next spring Stirratt will release a new country-folk album he’s made with his twin sister, who moved to Chicago a year ago.

The Autumn Defense performs Friday evening at the Apple Store, and then celebrates the release of Circles with a show Saturday night at Schubas. John and Laurie Stirratt will play an opening set Saturday; they’ll also open for Neko Case at the Old Town School of Folk Music on December 12.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.