Son Volt

TrackAlbum
WindfallTrace
Tear Stained EyeTrace
RouteTrace
DrownTrace
Back Into Your WorldStraightaways
Down To The WireAmerican Central Dust
Wild SideHonky Tonk
Back Against The WallNotes Of Blue
Cairo And SouthernNotes Of Blue
The 99Union

Son Volt photo 1

Son Volt (l to r): Mike Heidorn, Jay Farrar, Jim Boquist, Dave Boquist

 

 

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Son Volt playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Jay Farrar first came to prominence in the late 1980s/early 1990s with the brilliant alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo. During his time with them, he established himself as one of the finest young songwriters of his generation (for those who want to find out more about the history of that band, Richard Byrne’s excellent Toppermost is highly recommended). As Richard points out, the later years of that band spawned a “tug of war that eventually ripped primary songwriters (Jeff) Tweedy and Farrar apart for good … and spawned two equally influential new bands: Wilco and Son Volt.” Wilco’s subsequent career can be traced in the fine Toppermost by Marc Fagel. (#497 Uncle Tupelo / #859 Wilco).

After the implosion of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar quickly formed a new band, Son Volt. Its line-up included Mike Heidorn on drums (he had been the original drummer for Uncle Tupelo) and the brothers Dave and Jim Boquist. Dave’s skills as a multi-instrumentalist – he played guitar, lap steel, fiddle, banjo, dobro – made him a perfect fit for the new group. Talented as these other musicians were, however, it was clear from the outset that Farrar was the driving force behind the band. There was clearly going to be no repeat of the kind of division of songwriting duties which had been a feature of the later years of Uncle Tupelo. It may have been that Farrar was now determined to put the tensions which had marked that group’s final days well behind him. As with the earlier band, he drew on a diverse range of musical influences in writing songs for the group. These ranged through country (Hank Williams, the Stanley Brothers, the Louvins, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard) through folk (particularly people like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly) on to rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Band and country rock ones like the Byrds and the Flying Buritto Brothers. They also included singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt and punk and indie bands like the Sex Pistols, R.E.M. and the Replacements.

This combination of disparate influences had been one of the hallmarks of Uncle Tupelo. On Trace – Son Volt’s debut album first released in 1995 – Farrar created an even more potent synthesis of these various styles than he had done previously. In my opinion, it ranks not only as one of the great albums of the 1990s but also as his finest achievement to date in his musical career. One of the album’s great strengths is the backing musician’s dedication to Farrar’s musical vision and their ability to shift styles from song to song.

 

“Searching for a Truer Sound”

Trace was made during a difficult period in Jay Farrar’s life. It appeared just after the acrimonious break-up of his previous band. He and Jeff Tweedy had maintained a close friendship from their schooldays onwards. It was one predominantly based on their shared interest in music. In the early days, this perhaps papered over the major differences in terms of character and temperament between them. By the last days of the band, those differences had come to the surface in a very marked way. Also, both had invested a great deal in Uncle Tupelo and its dissolution undoubtedly led to a period of intense disillusionment for both men. This is reflected on Trace with its emphasis on the idea of transience (one of my selections from the album, the snarling rocker Route is a clear example of this.

The other most effective rock song on the album, Drown, with its grungy feel, sounds at times like a reflection on the breakdown of his relationship with Tweedy

One of the other key elements on Trace is its emphasis on the idea of the road. In his autobiography, Farrar links this to the fact that to record it he had to drive “from New Orleans to St. Louis to rehearse” the band. At other times, he drove “a full twenty-four hours from New Orleans to Minneapolis” for rehearsals. In Farrar’s opinion, this constant driving helped with the creative process on the record as it gave him “plenty of time to reflect and create”. It also gave him the opportunity to listen to classic country on his car radio. This “cemented the fiddle and steel guitar aesthetic” which he had in mind for the album. It also led to the epiphany which he describes in Windfall which embodies that “aesthetic”.

Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can’t recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963 but for now it sounds like heaven

Although some commentators have stressed the darker sides to the mood on Trace, Windfall suggests the possibility that a break with the past might also open up liberating opportunities. This live performance also shows off the musical excellence of the other members of Son Volt at this time.

Tear Stained Eye – my final choice from Trace – is another classic country-influenced song. It may also have the greatest chorus in any of Jay’s songs. This live version features some great banjo picking from Dave Boquist. Jay’s vocal here also bears out Jeff Tweedy’s description of his “authentically great voice” which “made everything he sang sound like the Old Testament”.

Unfortunately for Farrar, making a debut album as brilliant as Trace meant that Son Volt’s subsequent records were often judged by unrealistic standards. However excellent these were, many critics have tended to see them as being something of an anti-climax. It is true that up until very recently Farrar has struggled to match the amazingly high standard set by Trace. Nevertheless, all of the subsequent Son Volt albums contained a high portion of excellent songs. Indeed, some of the critical vitriol directed towards them at times seems essentially misguided to me.

Back Into Your World – the next selection – comes from Son Volt’s fine second album, Straightaways, first released in 1997. It is a superb R.E.M.-influenced song with an elusive lyric which nonetheless contains a number of arresting images (“let the judges meet their makers”). The album also included a number of other very fine rockers (including Caryatid Easy and Picking Up The Signal) which came very close to inclusion.

However, the next year, after the release of Son Volt’s third album, Wide Swing Tremolo, Farrar announced he was taking a break from the band. Over the next few years, he pursued a number of solo projects and a variety of collaborations with other artists, including Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Anders Parker of Varnaline (there will be more about these in a subsequent Toppermost).

In 2005, Son Volt re-emerged with a new line-up which featured Andrew Duplantis on bass, Brad Rice on guitar and Dave Bryson on drums. This line-up produced the excellent album, Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, the title of which reflected Farrar’s admiration for Woody Guthrie’s music. The album itself – and the subsequent ones recorded by this incarnation of the band (which was later augmented with such excellent musicians as Mark Spencer – he played piano, organ, lap steel and slide guitar – and Gary Hunt on fiddle) reflected Farrar’s growing concern with the political direction which America was taking. My next choice, Down To The Wire, which is built around a brilliant bass line by Duplantis is a good example of this darkening in Farrar’s vision of the country.

By contrast, Wild Side from the group’s 2013 album Honky Tonk is probably my favourite of Jay’s country songs. The CD was designed as a tribute to the ‘Bakersfield sound’ exemplified by artists like Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart and Merle Haggard. It is a tribute to the excellence of Wild Side that it is a good enough song to stand comparison with the works of those artists.

 

Going right back to his time with Uncle Tupelo, many commentators have drawn attention to the fatalistic strain in Farrar’s songwriting and the seeming darkness evident in his worldview. In a sense, this meant that he was one of those artists best placed to respond to the emergence of Donald Trump as a force in US politics. Indeed, this seemed to re-energise him as a songwriter. In my view, the two most recent Son Volt albums, Notes Of Blue (2017) and Union (2019), are the finest he has made since Trace. Indeed, his work seems to have regained the sharpness and focus that characterised that masterpiece. Trump’s rise lent a new urgency to his defence of the ‘little guy’ (an earlier example of this sympathy with the downtrodden was the brilliant Methamphetamine from Son Volt’s 2007 album The Search. If I had more space, I would have included it) and criticisms of the rapaciousness of those corporate and political elites who kept them – in Bob Dylan’s phrase – “on the caboose of the train”.

Two of my final choices, Back Against The Wall (Notes Of Blue) and The 99 (Union) are rousing anthems calling for renewed resistance against such forces.

Lastly, the brilliant Cairo And Southern (Notes Of Blue) is a far more personal and even bleaker blues-influenced song.

What this track indicates is that more than a quarter of a century after the release of their brilliant first album, Son Volt are still making music of extraordinary resonance and power. In Jay Farrar they also possess a songwriter of the very first rank. With a new album in the works – which I am very keenly anticipating – the future of the group seems secure.

 

 

Son Volt photo 2

 

Son Volt official website

Jay Farrar official website

“Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs: Portraits from a Musical Life”
Jay Farrar (Soft Skull Press, 2013)

“Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir Of Recording And Discording With Wilco, Etc.”
Jeff Tweedy (Faber Social, 2018)

“Wilco: Sunken Treasure”
Tim Grierson (Omnibus Press, 2013)

Jay Farrar on ‘alternative country facts’ (2017)

The Boot interviews Jay Farrar (March 2019)

The Boot interviews Jay Farrar (October 2015)

Riverfront Times interviews Jay Farrar (February 2013)

Rolling Stone reviews Honky Tonk

Jay Farrar biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

TopperPost #946

2 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Mar 31, 2021

    Out of the whole alt-country revolution, Jay Farrar had one big advantage over the herd. It was that voice of course, probably the most distinctive of the lot with the exception of Lucinda Williams. It had the two problems that distinctive voices often have: the marmite effect, and if you’ve got past that, the “can I take more than ten or a dozen doses at a time” follow-up. Get past all that and the man is really good. I’d forgotten just how good until this excellent Toppermost hit the record racks – and if you want a metaphor, that’s as suitable as most – and I was able to bask in some of Jay Farrar’s finer moments. Thank you Andrew, and I’m digging out my No Depression and Sebastopol which haven’t had a listen in years. I might even investigate some Son Volt too.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 31, 2021

    Thanks for the comment Dave. Agree on the distinctiveness of Jay’s voice – for me it is one of the great ones of recent times. And for more on his solo work, stay tuned to this station.

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