Twenty years ago, I asked a record store clerk what was playing, and I couldn’t understand her mumbled answer. Some Dolt? Sun Bowl? She repeated the name, pointing to the cover.
Son Volt’s debut album Trace sounded familiar even if the band was new to me. I had admired singer Jay Farrar before in Uncle Tupelo. After that band fell apart, its singer-songwriters both formed new bands. Former partner Jeff Tweedy was the sunny side of Uncle Tupelo’s pioneering alt-country-punk, playing McCartney to Farrar’s Lennon. Tweedy’s then-new band, Wilco, continued to bring sunshine to his blend of rock, Americana and, later, electronics. Son Volt, its name combining two historic studios, took a different path along the Mississippi River, its music the sound of loneliness on a muddy bank.
The album’s forty-two minutes alternate a crunching rock with honky-tonk swagger. They pit desolate ballads against slamming power chords. Brian Paulson, who had previously worked with Tweedy and Farrar, gave Trace its stark production. The album continues where Uncle Tupelo’s last album, Anodyne, left off, but it wasn’t a progression.
Farrar was not yet 25 when Uncle Tupelo released their 1990 debut, No Depression, but he already sounded world-weary, ready for the grave after endless heartache. His angst-ridden, melancholic delivery remains a steady feature. On “Windfall,” he opens the book on Son Volt singing, “May the wind take your troubles away.” Dave Boquist’s fiddle makes this a lovely melody. But were these lyrics a new direction or the same old song? Robert Christgau criticized them for traditional country music sentimentality, expecting more from something that called itself alt-country.
Trace compliments night rides, gloomy mornings and lazy afternoons. It’s got amplified attitude in tracks like “Live Free,” “Route” or “Drown,” driven by original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn. It’s a respectable album, but it plays it safe.
“Tear Stained Eye” steps forward gracefully. Farrar laments, “St. Genevieve can hold back the water/ Saints don’t bother with the tear-stained eye.” Chugging along with banjo and pedal-steel, it deserves to be a bar band staple. Though full of despair, “Ten Second News” crawls along appealingly. “Catching On,” moved along by Jim Boquist’s bass, sounds most like Tupelo, and is the album’s best balance of emotion and verve. The album ends with a cover of Ron Wood’s “Mystifies Me,” which could have been an outtake from the Stones’ country-blues period.
Trace is a catchy album, but Farrar’s consistently ordinary voice keeps it from having any staying power. Son Volt is defined by Farrar’s moans and howls, and their next two albums repeated this blend to diminishing returns. After the ’90s, Farrar abandoned the band name for a series of less inspired solo albums. In 2005 he revived the Son Volt brand and started to make decent records again. But only decent. Their latest album Honky Tonk pays homage to the classic Bakersfield sound, but it often sounds indistinguishable from its roadhouse inspirations.
Farrar’s music evokes the everyday sorrows of everyday people, but however sincere he may be, his talent is limited. I’m still waiting for Farrar to take chances as Uncle Tupelo did and Wilco does to critical and commercial acclaim. Son Volt may never play stadiums or jam-band festivals. But there’s a place for their stark roots music. When I listen to my hometown L.A. heroes like X, The Gun Club, The Blasters and Los Lobos, I hear how punk and Americana joined forces for an innovative new sound. Uncle Tupelo blew walls down. Wilco sauntered forward. Farrar and Son Volt snuck through the barn door, content to kick the dust up. Twenty years later, Farrar is still a few steps behind his former partner and lifelong musical rival.