The trouble all started in Belleville, Illinois. It was sometime during the late 1980s, early 1990s. As the pearls jammed and the Janes got addicted, as thin white dudes from Britian to Australia were leading the alternativeland wave, the whole hip of it was in jeopardy. Partly because of two insurgent types in Belleville, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. The two, who formed a band called Uncle Tupelo, basically hijacked country and rock, and all of the critics raved for it, due to the music's cranky intensity, and alt-country was born as a good short-hand to describe the movement around 1993. But then Farrar and Tweedy proved to be just too damned prolific for their band's own good, so they split into two bands, Wilco and Son Volt.
Between the two, Wilco has made the most of its under-the-radar status, but comparing that band's last album and Son Volt's latest, "Notes in Blue," maybe the later has more stayin' power, as the tortoise to Wilco's hare.
After a focused effort to produce a record of pure honky tonk songs, Son Volt's latest is more blues-core. And if the earth tones of Son Volt have proven to be a little too rustic over the years, the new live shows are turned up loud and uptempo, indicating signs of a great little rock band gaining confidence in its purist sensibilities.
"I was aiming at the convergence of where blues, folk and country meet," Farrar says in a telephone interview prior to his show in Flagstaff. "The process in the studio is pretty intuitive. I don't do a lot of verbalizing about what direction we take."
The album includes a few rockers and many more down-in-the-dust acoustic numbers tending toward melancholy. The uptempo tunes such as "Lost Souls" and "Sinking Down" have a perfect crunch and that straight-forward punked-up-blues energy that's hard to get right in a studio. On "Notes in Blue" there's a lot of good crackling energy going on.
But digging down into the roots of the national sound is a certain specialty for Son Volt. They have an out-of-time style that once existed and never existed, where the stream of Farrar's consciousness views America through a dirty windshield. Farrar is an artful authentic, a heartland impressionist. His musician's tools are antiques that haven't blown out or fallen apart yet.
"On 'Sinking Down' I played a bottleneck slide with a quintessential blues tuning," he says. "The recording was primitive and straightforward. The approach was to make an organic recording. One example was for us to use an old amplifier which we actually used on the album cover for our first record, 'Trace,' which we had modified. It is an ancient sounding amp and that was the right aesthetic."
Another rave-up tune, "Lost Souls," could be about Son Volt, the band, existing in the space of some under heard sub-pop genre, where they are most certainly cool but they aren't household names, with Farrar singing, "Let the music play on/This world won't give us the time." But he says the song is more about others, about those far less fortunate than Son Volt, as far popularity goes.
"I was looking at it from the perspective of where a lot of bands and performers fall by the wayside. Not so much from my own but their perspective," he says.
The best aspect of any Son Volt record is Farrar's voice, which has that quality Neil Young might describe as "real as the day is long." On how he was able to sing with a kind of world-weary soul that's completely unteachable, Farrar says "My mom would have a lot of opinions on that. And in the early days I sang a lot angrier, since I was listening to a lot of punk and rock, but (his voice) got taken over by age and wisdom. Plus I haven't smoked cigarettes for 30 years. I tried that, but it didn't work for me."
And what is the source of their mythic-Americana spirit?
"I used to read a lot as a teenager working at a used bookstore that my mom owned. I do a lot of stream of consciousness," he says. "Everything from the Minutemen to the Flying Burrito Brothers. It's all part of the big continuum. That's where we came from."