During the spring of 1992, Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora contacted English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg about writing music for a selection of completed Guthrie lyrics after Bragg played a Guthrie tribute concert in New York City's Central Park. Her father had left behind over a thousand sets of complete lyrics written between 1939 and 1967; as they had not been recorded by Guthrie, and he did not write music, none of these lyrics had any music other than a vague stylistic notation.
Nora Guthrie's liner notes in Mermaid Avenue indicate that it was her intention that the songs be given to a new generation of musicians who would be able to make the songs relevant to a younger generation. Nora Guthrie contacted Bragg, who in turn approached Wilco and asked them to participate in the project as well. Wilco agreed, and in addition to recording with Bragg in Ireland, they were given their own share of songs to finish.
Rather than recreating tunes in Guthrie's style, Bragg and Wilco created new, contemporary music for the lyrics. What seemed like a risky enterprise surprised everyone; released in 1998 as Mermaid Avenue, the results were met with universal acclaim. The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and went on to place fourth on the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1998 (right behind Bob Dylan's Live 1966).
Since the release of the Mermaid Avenue albums, many other musicians have released recordings that similarly have drawn upon the trove of unpublished Guthrie material. According to Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, Woody Guthrie had offered his unpublished lyrics to Dylan, but when Dylan visited Guthrie's house to obtain them, Guthrie's wife Marjorie was not home. Guthrie's son Arlo told his babysitter to let Dylan in, but Arlo didn't know about the manuscripts and Dylan left empty-handed.
Man in the Sand, a documentary about the collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco, was released in 1999. A DVD of the film is included in Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions.