Big Star Tribute Album

Wilco, Whiskeytown honor influential but commercially unsuccessful power-pop act by covering songs for LP.

Big Star drummer Jody Stephens was simply looking for a way to give his

band a new voice by putting its influential power-pop tunes in the

hands of some modern artists.

He probably never realized how many responses he'd get.

Rising like a phoenix out of the humdrum slagheap of tribute albums is the

results of that call and response, the Big Star tribute album Big Star, Small

World, replete with some influential names in rock today such as

Whiskeytown, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and the Afghan Whigs and including a new

tune from the latest lineup of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Big Star.

"[Band founder] Chris [Bell] and Alex [Chilton] are both emotive singers. There's

a lot more going on with the vocals than just a voice there," said Stephens, who

started gathering tracks for the tribute album in September 1995. "There's a lot

of emotion, there's more to be read underneath what they're singing. I just

thought it would be good to have singers that I thought would capture that in

their own way."

By most accounts, the '70s power-pop quartet has long been tribute-worthy.

Though never commercially successful, Big Star purveyed a trend-setting

mixture of hook-laden melody and rock-'n'-roll punch that made them near

patron saints to a broad range of later musical left-fielders. The Replacements,

R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub and This Mortal Coil are among the many who have

openly acknowledged Big Star as a creative influence.

The new disc wedges a track of fresh Big Star music between contributions by a

diverse collection of Big Star acolytes that includes Juliana Hatfield, the Posies

and Mills. The new Big Star tune, "Hot Thing," was recorded by band figurehead

Chilton, 47; Stephens, 45; and Big Star's newest members, the Posies'

singer/guitarist Jon Auer and bassist/guitarist Ken Stringfellow.

The track packs a rootsy wallop, said Stephens. "It sounds like a cross between

Big Star and a Memphis R&B thing," he said. "In the past, Big Star was more of

a British pop invasion-inspired band. There are certain elements of Memphis in

there, too. But in this new thing, there are more Memphis music elements than

British music elements."

The tribute album evolved slowly, starting with Stephens' idea of giving some of

the quartet's songs new readings in new voices.

Among the bands contributing to the 12 tracks on the disc -- due out in

September -- are alt-country acts Wilco and Whiskeytown, country singer Kelly

Willis, white soul band the Afghan Whigs and a team comprising Matthew

Sweet, Stephens, Chris Stamey of the dB's and R.E.M. bassist Mills.

Joe "Bass" Howard, bassist for the Posies, said the band recorded the album

track "What's Going On" a couple years ago and were a fairly logical choice to

be among the album's contributors.

"Ken [Stringfellow] and Jon [Auer] are in Big Star; Jody [Stephens] and Alex

[Chilton] are big fans of the Posies," Howard said. "If there's any band in the

friggin' world that should do a Big Star cover, it's the Posies. If it's Big Star, tell

me when to be at the airport, what time do we record?"

Big Star frontman Chilton began singing at 17 with the Box Tops, whose 1967

single "The Letter" remains his only commercial hit to date. Singer/guitarist

Chris Bell recruited him for Big Star, and the band -- with other original

members Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel -- went on to issue three Big Star

albums that remain indelibly stamped as influential, even though they remain

virtually unknown to the mass public. Bell left the band in 1972 and later died in

a 1978 car accident. Hummel left as well, and the band remained largely

dormant until a 1993 reunion at Missouri University with the Posies' Stringfellow

and Auer subbing for Bell and Hummel.

John Mazzacco, president of Ignition Records, said there were several reasons

why the label jumped at the chance to release Big Star, Small World.

"Big Star, first of all, is a seminal pop band with active closeted fans we happen

to be a part of," Mazzacco said. "The artist participation in the record also

maneuvered us a little bit to do the deal with them, as well as our ongoing

relation with Jody [Stephens] at Ardent Studios."

Stephens said that the new version of Big Star will embark on a limited tour

around the time of the album's release.

The complete track and artist listing is: "Ballad of El Goodo," Sweet, Stephens,

Stamey, Mills; "Back of a Car," Gin Blossoms; "Nighttime," Afghan Whigs; "Jesus

Christ," Teenage Fanclub; "Give Me Another Chance," Whiskeytown; "Don't Lie

to Me," Juliana Hatfield; "When My Baby's Beside Me," Kelly Willis; "Get What

You Deserve," the Idle Wilds; "Hot Thing," Big Star; "Thirteen," Wilco; "What's

Going On," Posies; "September Gurls," Sister Hazel.