Son Volt: past and present
SNOWMASS VILLAGE When I asked Jay Farrar if he knew at the time that his late ’80s, early ’90s band, Uncle Tupelo, was up to something outside the fashion of the day, he responds with a laugh of amusement. Uncle Tupelo was so far from the mainstream that no one could have failed to recognize the gap.”It was so obvious that we weren’t doing anything that was the big thing at the time,” said Farrar. “Nirvana was the big thing at the time.”The space between Nirvana and Uncle Tupelo is comparable to the distance, in miles and cultures, between the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, the respective regions from which the two bands emerged. Nirvana was aggressive and moody, and seem designed to capture the angst of the moment, of a youth culture dealing with family disintegration. Nirvana sold millions of records, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an anthem, and Kurt Cobain was appointed, against his wishes, as the latest spokesman of a generation. He also became the latest American youth idol to die young.Uncle Tupelo was on a different path. The band – led by Farrar and fellow singer-guitarist Jeff Tweedy – made music that looked as much to the past as it did to the moment. On their 1990 debut, Farrar and Tweedy, high school friends from Belleville, Ill., mostly strummed acoustic guitars, blew harmonicas and sang in rough but gentle harmonies. The songs channeled not contemporary youthful tension, but guns and whisky and the rough-and-tumble countryish sounds of Johnny Cash. The album’s title, “No Depression,” came from a song by the Carter Family, the age-old American country group.Uncle Tupelo was part of a small scene. “We had a small circle of people, like the Jayhawks, who were doing something similar,” said the 40-year-old Farrar, from his home in St. Louis. And there was a following – nothing near on the scale of Nirvana’s, but enough to warrant sticking together long enough to release a total of four albums and to be signed to Sire, an affiliate of the major label Reprise. “Maybe people sensed that we were swimming upstream, doing something that not many people were doing at the time,” said Farrar, explaining the band’s appeal.
Uncle Tupelo’s time was relatively short, lasting from 1987-1993. Those years were marked as much by tension between the band’s two principal members as it was by commercial success.But time has been good to both Farrar and Tweedy, and the legacy of Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo has been widely credited with launching alternative country, a genre that not only spawned the likes of Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams and Old Crow Medicine Show, but also reached back to include Neil Young, Steve Earle, Johnny Cash and Cowboy Junkies. The style is marked by equal measures of rootedness and experimentation, and a belief that country music could still be radical and rebellious. The grunge scene sparked by Nirvana is a bare flicker these days, while alt-country – or Americana, as it has also come to be known – is a sprawling and vital form of music. The magazine devoted to covering the genre is called No Depression, a credit to Uncle Tupelo’s first album.Following the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy formed Wilco. That group’s first album, 1995’s “A.M.,” was roughly a continuation of the song-oriented music that Uncle Tupelo had made. But Wilco got progressively detached from alt-country, and with “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel” and “A Ghost Is Born” made adventurous, critically acclaimed records that went a long way toward revitalizing rock ‘n’ roll. Wilco’s new CD, “Sky Blue Sky,” is something of a return to traditional song forms.
Farrar stuck closer to his original vision. In 1994, he formed Son Volt, whose 1995 debut, “Trace,” was a critic’s favorite. Through several more ’90s recordings, Son Volt fulfilled the promise of Uncle Tupelo, making albums that mined America’s past – acoustic ballads, electric-guitar rock, and innovative song-making – without being stuck in it. But commercial success was limited, and at the close of the last millennium, the band parted ways with its label. Farrar pursued a solo career which yielded more artistically appealing fruit: three albums, and the soundtrack to the film “The Slaughter Rule.”
But Farrar was not through with his days as a member of a band. “I felt Son Volt was unfinished business,” he said from his home in St. Louis. The years of solo projects, he said, was “an interesting experiment, learning a lot. I had more leeway in the studio to try out whatever seemed inspiring, things that wouldn’t fly so well in a band context. But I missed being in a band situation.”Farrar reformed Son Volt in 2004 to resume their recording efforts, but his original bandmates ultimately balked at the idea. So Farrar moved forward anyway, assembling a new version of Son Volt. The group released 2005’s “Okemah and the Melody of Riot” and this year’s “The Search.” Despite the shift in personnel, Son Volt 2.0 sounded very much in line with the original – a demonstration of the strength of its leader’s musical vision. Still, Farrar says Son Volt is a band – with all the give and take that comes with it.
“It always feels like a band,” he said of Son Volt. “Once you get a group of musicians together, and you go on the road and play shows, a synergy occurs. It’s ultimately the result of everyone involved.”With “The Search,” Farrar showed that his hunch – that Son Volt had more music in it – was on target. The album is a continuation of ideas extending back to “No Depression.” “The Search” opens with “Slow Hearse,” a brief but memorable exercise in minimalism – the only lyric is “Feels like driving around in a slow hearse,” repeated several times – and expansive production. The next tune, “The Picture,” echoes the apocalyptic themes – war, corruption, the angry hand of God – that have often cropped up in Farrar’s lyrics (and alt-country as a whole). Musically, however, it is as upbeat as Son Volt has ever been, punctuated with Farrar’s first-ever use of a horn section, inspired, he said, by “Exile on Main Street”-era Rolling Stones.It may be a band featured on “The Search,” but Farrar doesn’t sound like an artist being constrained by the presence of other voices. And while he doesn’t subscribe much to the alt-country label that has been hung on him, it doesn’t seem to bother him either. It hasn’t limited his ideas for the music.
“It comes from growing up listening to bands like the Beatles. Especially the Beatles, who had so many influences,” said Farrar. “I try to keep one foot rooted in the past, and one foot in the present. But there’s an endless supply of music I haven’t heard.”Snowmass Massive Music & Movies – Son Volt, with Keller Williams opening at 6 p.m., followed by a laser light show, Saturday on Fanny Hill in Snowmass. Massive Music & Movies opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. with a free screening of a program of short films from Aspen Shortsfest, presented in partnership with Aspen Film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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