Son Volt unveils new look, different ‘Melody’
By Derek Caney
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jay Farrar is hurtling down Highway
61, invoking the spirit of Leadbelly and Bob Dylan, as he spits
out the words to one of the tracks on his band Son Volt’s first
album in seven years.
Like the song, “Afterglow 61,” a road epic fueled by a
driving rhythm and powerful chords that are equal parts Rolling
Stones and Husker Du, Son Volt has traveled a long way, and not
everyone lasted the distance.
Son Volt, the lesser of the two bands that evolved from
alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, released its fourth album
“Okemah And The Melody Of Riot” (Sony/Legacy) on Tuesday.
There’s only one problem. Except for Farrar, none of the
original members – Mike Heidorn, and brothers Jim and Dave
Boquist — play on the record.
“The original idea was to make a reunion record, but it
just didn’t happen,” Farrar told Reuters in a telephone
interview from a recording studio near his home in St. Louis.
The four men convened to record a song for “Por Vida” a
benefit album released last year for Alejandro Escovedo, the
great Texas songwriter hobbled by hepatitis. Farrar had
intended to reconvene the band for an album of new material.
LAWYERS AND DISCORD
“Lawyers had been brought in to make sure everything was
done correctly. Then after the reunion had been announced, on
the first day of pre-production, they asked for more demands,”
Farrar said. “It seemed to have Machiavellian overtones.”
Instead he recruited a new band including Brad Rice from
country-rock songwriter Tift Merritt’s band, Andrew Duplantis,
who has played with Husker Du’s Bob Mould, and Dave Bryson who
played with Farrar on his solo tours. The album took less than
a month to record.
“We were thrust into a situation in which we were forced to
coalesce in a short amount of time,” Farrar said “We didn’t
rehearse any of the songs before we recorded them. So I think
that added a kind of element of spontaneity to the whole
Gone are the countrified arrangements and, for the most
part, the acoustic instruments that defined the sound of Son
Volt’s first three albums, including the 1995 debut “Trace,” a
landmark album of the alternative country genre and arguably
one of the finest albums of the 1990s.
The new album also eschews the more dissonant and
experimental colorings his 2003 solo album “Terroir Blues,”
which were made during Son Volt’s hiatus.
“At that point, I didn’t really feel like rocking out,
because I was going through a period where my dad had passed
away from cancer,” he said.
“It kind of occurred to me along the way that I’d never
done a record of primarily uptempo songs,” Farrar said. “In the
past it had always been striking a balance of between the
acoustic stuff and electric stuff. On the new record, I wanted
to concentrate on the electric uptempo stuff.”
Farrar has been walking that tightrope since founding Uncle
Tupelo in 1987, mixing punk rock sensibilities of the 1980s
independent college rock scene and fused it with the folk
traditions of the Carter Family and the Louvin Brothers.
Pundits would later call the music “alt country” or “no
depression,” taken from the Carter Family song that was the
title track of Uncle Tupelo’s first album.
Uncle Tupelo imploded in 1994 amid tensions between Farrar
and the band’s other principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy, who went
on to form Wilco.
“The most unfortunate thing about Uncle Tupelo is that we
were a young band,” Farrar said. “We weren’t really calling the
shots. I found it incredibly frustrating that people at the
record company that we didn’t even know were making decisions
about what songs were going to be released as singles, when I
thought those decisions should be coming from the us.”
Those tensions were detailed in a recent biography of Wilco
by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, who paints a
sometimes unflattering picture of Farrar as uncommunicative and
unwilling to share the spotlight with Tweedy.
“The book is very myopic,” Farrar said. “I occupy the
adversarial category that a lot of other guys do in the book,
whether it’s other musicians or the record company. It’s
unfortunate there isn’t an objective history of Uncle Tupelo.”
Wilco has since gone on to make several critically
acclaimed records, including the hit album “Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot,” which has outsold Son Volt’s entire catalog and was
the subject of the Sam Jones documentary “I Am Trying To Break
“It is weird when there’s a large level of hype associated
with someone I’d known in the past,” Farrar said. “But I just
concentrate on what I do. I don’t look at thinks like they’re a
Son Volt is scheduled to play a few shows in New York and
New Jersey this month. Then in September, the band will play a
three week tour of the western and southern United States.