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Seeing Traces With Son Volt's Jay Farrar

Mike Mannon

As Rhino Records prepares to release the 20th anniversary set of Son Volt’s classic debut, Farrar relives the success of Trace.

Son Volt

Trace (Expanded & Remastered)

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2015-10-30

Twenty years ago last month, Son Volt released its stunning debut, Trace, to almost unanimous raves. Critics loved the raw, soaring, elegiac record filled with one classic song after another. Fans of Farrar's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, loved the continuation of the sound of the band's last record, Anodyne.

On Friday, 30 October, Rhino will release a two-disc set that features the remastered album, unreleased demos, and a complete analog-recorded show from Greenwich Villages' the Bottom Line in early 1996.

Farrar will also be on the road starting this week for a limited number of dates, billed as "Jay Farrar Performs Songs of Trace". He's backed by multi-instrumentalist Gary Hunt and Eric Haywood, who played pedal steel on the original album.

Because of their shared history of coming of age in Uncle Tupelo, Farrar and Son Volt will always be linked to Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. Through the years, both have eschewed the revisionist history that paints the early band as some sort of seismic shift in the country-rock aesthetic or the beginning of alt-country. As Farrar and Tweedy have consistently maintained, they were carrying on a tradition that pervades through Gram Parsons, the early '70s Stones, and Buffalo Springfield.

What is true, however, is that Uncle Tupelo was and is a monumental band in a similar vein of bands like the Velvet Underground, of whom Brian Eno famously said, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 [debut album] copies started a band."

It's also one of the last great he-said, he-said rock 'n' roll breakups. Uncle Tupelo recorded four albums, but they were just getting recognized by the mainstream when they split. And of course, in those nascent Internet days, little was initially confirmed about what actually happened.

These days, there'd be a documentary in the can with 12 angles of footage. The lasting curiosity popped up again earlier this year, more than two decades after the songwriters stopped speaking to each other. A Twitter meme circulated, showing a photo of the original three Uncle Tupelo members with the tag "True Detective, Season Three".

Remarkably, amidst the rubble of the acrimonious break-up, Farrar was able to pick up the pieces and create a record of such undeniably great music that if he never recorded another track, his legacy in the country-rock tradition would have been secure.

In a way, Trace was a blessing and curse to the public perception of Farrar as a writer and artist. Even Springsteen had a couple of lukewarm records before critics confirmed the universal brilliance of Born to Run. Son Volt's debut was such a shining star that, even through a busy career, and assured solo and band releases, it's difficult to attain the achievement of Trace.

The mournful beauty of almost every song is underscored by a theme and a tone of freedom, the road, and a marking of time. Trace is a record where even the unyielding melancholy is heart lifting. Though its critics have sometimes used its central theme against it, Trace has always been a love song to nostalgia and how nostalgia is important, dangerous, and lovely. And of course, the imperfections of Farrar's unmistakable voice is, well, perfection.

I first heard Trace in a darkened bar thick with cigarette smoke on an Indian summer Saturday shortly after it was released. I was sitting, mostly silent and happy, beside an old friend and music lover who had come to visit me in a new town. Halfway through the first track, "Windfall", we turned and looked at each other, uncharacteristically wordless. At the end of the song, buoyed by the fact we were the only two in the bar, we told the bartender to play it again, and then to play the whole record through. It's a moment I'll never forget.

Notoriously cagy about looking back, often referred to as a difficult and guarded genius, Farrar can be an intimidating persona to prepare to talk to -- especially about a time so fraught with meaning and import.

It's funny what you project on people you've never met.

What I found was a committed career musician: relaxed, funny, and at peace with looking back on a seminal moment in his life and career. Speaking with me on the verge of his East Coast tour, Farrar reflected on Trace's shoestring budget, his own distinctive voice, and his relieve at leaving a collapsing Uncle Tupelo.

* * *

So I remember reading in your book [2013's Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs] that Trace was funded mostly with your (at the time) girlfriend's credit card, and you were driving back and forth between New Orleans, St. Louis, and Minnesota during its recording. It sounds a little crazed. Tell me what you remember of that time.

You're right, yes, it was recorded using my wife's credit card. It was a struggle getting Trace made from start to finish. As Uncle Tupelo ended, I was without management. Tweedy would not allow me to work with Uncle Tupelo's management, and fortunately, my wife had a job and a credit card, and that's what financed Trace.

It was a liberating time for me both personally and creatively. I was living in New Orleans and making long drives up to St. Louis and Minneapolis. I just had a lot of time to do reflective thinking and come up with these songs.

It sounds like it was an exhilarating time—leaving Uncle Tupelo behind and looking ahead. Was it a scary time as well?

I don't think so. I suppose there's always some uncertainty. But I had the opportunity to see both Eric Haywood and Jim Boquist play with Joe Henry when they were opening shows for Uncle Tupelo.

I think it was an opportunity for me to put more focus on my songwriting. I experienced some hostility in Uncle Tupelo with regards to that, as well. There was a time the other songwriter walked up to me and said one sentence. He said "People like my songs more than yours," and he walked away. So, you know, when I say it was a liberating time for me, creatively, that's what I'm referring to.

Yeah, what do you do with that?

You leave. [Laughs] Because it was a sort of a toxic, uh, intimidation.

Did the process of looking back at Trace and listening to the tracks bring back a lot of the emotions of the time? That liberation, that feeling: was it exciting to chart your own vision?

Absolutely, when I listen back now, the band sounds good. And visceral. Experienced, but not real polished. And that's just the way a rock band should sound.

One thing that I take away from it as I listen to it now, and look at it through a retrospective lens, is that I can tell I was just ecstatic to playing with pedal steel guitar player Eric Haywood, and pairing that with Dave Boquist's fiddle.. That's one aesthetic I wanted to go for: the country music aesthetic.

You're bringing Eric out of the road with you, right?

Yeah, I felt like the best way to commemorate the anniversary of the release of Trace would be to present the songs in a more elemental way. Just kind of boil them down to their essence, and reuniting with Eric is something I've wanted to do for a long time.

I know you've learned the pedal steel yourself more recently. Are you going to get behind it at all?

[Laughs] No, there are two more experienced steel players on stage than myself, so I'll leave it to those guys. There are actually a couple of songs we do that are duo steel guitar songs, and that's something I really like to do on the road.

Your voice is so singular. The best word I have for it is "longing". There's a whole generation of 40-year-olds who choke up when they hear "Windfall". What does your voice sound like to your own ears?

You know, I always thought my experience was just like everyone else's the first time you hear your voice on tape: you're horrified! [Laughs] But I think I've gotten more comfortable with it over time. When I hear the record now, it just sounds pretty free and relieved.

Son Volt has had several band members come and go through your eight albums. It seems like that's only really odd since the rock 'n' roll era began, but we look at jazz combos, and bluesmen, and even the dozens of players who went through bands like Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, and that's the way it always used to be. Do you look to find the best players for the music you are making at the moment?

Yes, I think so. Son Volt has always been a vehicle for the songs that I'm writing. So I know that members will come and go. There are myriad reasons for that. And you are absolutely right. If you look at the history books, that's the way it's always has happened and the way it always will. Lineups change. Sometimes, it's like baseball. [Laughs]

Has doing this project sparked your creativity? Have you been writing?

I've been working on songs. I've recorded some songs that may be more oriented toward a solo record. And I've written ten or 12 songs, and I've recorded one that might be more oriented to a Son Volt framework.

So we'll see what develops with those. I think something will happen, one way or the other, next year.

Did Rhino let you pretty much run the show as far as what was included in the re-release set?

It was a collaborative process, for sure. But they've been great to work with, and yeah, for the most part they've been open to all ideas. The Live at the Bottom Line show was something I thought should see the light of day just because it was recorded on analog tape in a mobile recording truck, so I knew it would sound good.

As for the the demos, I felt like something extra should be added to the re-issue, and I think the demos provide contrast to the studio versions. You can see the development of the songs from demo stage to studio version. So they were open to all that.

As you've been listening to the songs and preparing for this release and tour, what did you discover in the music you'd forgotten about—particularly the demos?

[Laughs] Just questionable engineering techniques, perhaps. It was the first time I'd worked as a recording engineer. It was just a little four-track cassette recorder. I had a lot of good times working with it, and it was a very creative experience for me.

Well, you got it right in the end. Most of us thought it was an instant classic the moment it came out, and nothing has changed that in the 20 years since.

* * *

Trace drops Friday, 30 October. Purchase information and tour dates are available here on Jay Farrar's website.

Mike Mannon travels the backroads of America to write about roots music and culture for sites like No Depression and Live for Live Music. He is the president of Writing Dynamics, Inc. and Chief Storyteller for 3-Minute Storyteller.

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