Pin It
Submit to Reddit

Six-string belief 

Son Volt is an antiwar machine

Last year, Son Volt leader Jay Farrar finally broke his silence about the dissolution of his mothership group Uncle Tupelo. He willingly exposed himself to the rock press and continues to display renewed faith in what guitar bands can achieve. No longer so stoic, Farrar's not just drifting out there, looking at the wounded world. Son Volt's latest makes clear he's back and he's pissed. Okemah and the Melody Of Riot (bearing the name of folk icon Woody Guthrie's birthplace) is a big, nasty, electricity-devouring antiwar machine, and the dense words of its 13 songs fly in all directions. Consider "6 String Belief": "Revolution sets the course straight/it was necessary then and it's necessary now/Corruption in the system/a grassroots insurrection could bring them down." A fantasy, perhaps, but also fuel for Son Volt's righteously rockist engine.

This seed of revolt has been evident in Farrar's music from the git-go. In the mid-1980s, Belleville, IL, was home to an illin', noisy bar band, a quartet proudly dubbed the Primitives. They tried to cover songs by punk heroes like Black Flag and the Minutemen, until the oldest member, Wade Farrar, left to join the Army. The remaining trio of Primitives -- multi-instrumentalists Farrar and Jeff Tweedy and idiosyncratic drummer Dave Heidorn -- soon broke up. But in 1987, they reformed, taking a very unpunk name: Uncle Tupelo.

Uncle Tupelo insisted on playing country and punk, rolling like a beer can back and forth from one style to the other. Despite the hostility of "hardcore" punks, they found a steady gig in nearby St. Louis and by 1990 they released an album, No Depression. This, of course, became the name of a magazine (and an online forum), dedicated to what was called

Despite the disc's title, Uncle Tupelo yowls about drunken despair and frustration and rich bastards and drunken resolve. And under and past the loudness, the moments tick on, falling like dust. Belleville, like country (and punk and everything else) is a state of mind and body -- entropy, y'all (sorry 'bout that).

No wonder the band had to get out of town. However, on their second album, Still Feel Gone, they sound even more isolated and self-obsessed. Uncle Tupelo's third album, the all-acoustic March 16 20, 1992, produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, seems like an attempted escape from themselves. Traditional songs abound but Farrar and Tweedy were too recognizable to pass for coal miners, hellfire preachers or even moonshiners. The fourth album's title, Anodyne ("an innocuous pastime"), seems even more ironic than No Depression, because all the best songs are about having a power struggle (and not just with yourself). The lyrics are sharper, the music more polished, and the album approved, finally, by a major label, Sire.

Yet again, just when Uncle Tupelo seemed set, the dynamic shifted: Jay Farrar, basically the leader -- and according to Tweedy, the "dominant songwriter" in Farrar-Tweedy copyrights -- chose that moment to leave the band. Farrar, joined by Uncle Tupelo's original drummer, Dave Heidorn (who had left before Anodyne), formed Son Volt with brothers Jim and Dave Boquist.

Musically, Son Volt's debut, Trace (1995), wasn't so different from Anodyne. Still, the best songs were a wide-angle vision of a beautiful, polluted landscape, simultaneously nurturing and poisoning. Trace's sound is sometimes as volatile as Uncle Tupelo's early Belleville punk amplified by twang, but also just as bound to find a shifting dynamic, a rise and fall. "Keep your eye on the road, your hand on the gear and get used to it," Farrar seems to be saying. No wonder Son Volt later covered "I'm Lookin' At the World Through a Windshield."

However, Son Volt pretty much peaked with Trace -- creatively and commercially. And Farrar went solo, exploring ways to vary his musical approach as Tweedy's own more flamboyant, post-Uncle Tupelo brand name, the ever-shifting Wilco, was also attempting in the late '90s. In 2005, Wilco presented Kicking Television: Live, which shifts at times from avant guitar to sheer noise. Also in '05, the newly revived Son Volt -- Farrar plus his solo tour's opening act and backing band, Canyon -- came full circle to Farrar's beginnings, releasing Okemah, which featured noise inspired by Uncle Tupelo's old heroes, Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

As in the days of Uncle Tupelo, and the first incarnation of Son Volt, Okemah shows that Farrar does best when his quest for "answers" somehow finds itself ready to jump the curb, shifting gears again, in messes of dust and daylight.

Son Volt plays the Visulite Theatre, with special guest Shannon McNally, on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 9pm. Call 704-358-9200 or go to for more info.

Tags: ,

Pin It
Submit to Reddit

Speaking of 3.00000


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Creative Loafing encourages a healthy discussion on its website from all sides of the conversation, but we reserve the right to delete any comments that detract from that. Violence, racism and personal attacks that go beyond the pale will not be tolerated.

Search Events
items in Creative Loafing Charlotte More in Creative Loafing Charlotte pool

© 2018 Womack Digital, LLC
Powered by Foundation