Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Long Haulers

Son Volt hit the road again

By Meredith Ochs

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  "If you've been to Slo-Tom's, then you've really seen it all," says Jay Farrar. The Son Volt frontman and I are discussing St. Louis, his hometown, and he's kidding around about the tiny, blue-collar hole-in-the-wall immortalized in song by the Bottle Rockets, his friends and Missouri neighbors. After spending most of his adult life on the road, touring first with Uncle Tupelo and then with Son Volt, Farrar has been home for a few months, working on Son Volt's new Wide Swing Tremolo, which will be released by Warner Bros. a week from Tuesday, October 6.

Slo-Tom's may be a quintessentially Son Volt kind of place, but the legendarily reserved Farrar hasn't sought refuge there during this Cardinals-crazed St. Louis summer. Not even to blow off steam in between recording sessions. "Uh, I don't get out much," he says. While Mark McGwire was rewriting baseball history at Busch Stadium, Son Volt, whose line-up is Farrar, original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, and Minneapolis brothers Dave and Jim Boquist (multi-instrumentalist and bassist, respectively), were adding another chapter to the dense volume of great American roots music, recording Wide Swing Tremolo in nearby Millstadt, Illinois. Although the band formed just three years ago, they already have a legacy to uphold. Their debut, Trace (Warner Bros.), was a timeless amalgam of rock, country, folk, and blues that evoked a driver's-eye view of roadside America. Their second release, Straightaways (Warner Bros.), opened with Farrar's deadstop-punctuated rockers and tapered off into a handful of tempered acoustic songs. It was essentially a companion piece to Trace, but some Son Volt fans viewed it as lateral rather than forward movement.

On Wide Swing Tremolo, however, the hardcore country elements of Son Volt's first two albums have receded -- there's nary a banjo to be found, fiddle makes a mere cameo, and the pedal steel of band co-conspirator Eric Heywood is heard only on the final two songs. Instead, Son Volt opt for a rawer, more open sound, beginning with the snarling garagy guitar riff and distorted vocals that define the opening "Straightface." The disc goes on to encompass rootsy touches, including a couple of bluesy, piano-embellished ballads and the occasional blast of high-and- lonesome harmonica. Still, the result is more distinctly rock, though Farrar and (in a separate phone conversation) Dave Boquist both insist that wasn't intentional. "We didn't really have a master plan," says Farrar, "other than to spend more time in the studio and leave a little more room for other instrumentation."

To facilitate that plan the band built their own recording studio in a Millstadt rehearsal space and produced the disc themselves (with engineering help from former Sugar bassist David Barbe). They used the extra time and independence to experiment. "We had all these instruments lying around, and there's a natural tendency to pick things up and try them out," Farrar points out. "I was able to start writing songs on instruments that I normally wouldn't use, such as dulcimer ["Dead Man's Clothes"] and Wurlitzer piano ["Blind Hope"]."

It's no accident that Farrar would end up in a roomful of musical instruments. The youngest of four boys in a family where everyone played something, he was surrounded by guitars, accordions, mandolins, and banjos. At age 11, he began playing '60s garage rock with his brothers, the distorted strains of which surface on "Straightface." "It wasn't so much a departure as getting reacquainted with garage rock," he explains.

If a respite from touring has allowed Farrar to revisit his past while still pushing the musical boundaries of his band, it's also caused a similar shift in his lyrics. From his Uncle Tupelo days, when he addressed the drunken escapism of rust-belt workers, to the demolished historic buildings and carcinogenic beaches he sings of with Son Volt, Farrar has always been a poetic observer of the human condition. On Wide Swing Tremolo, his impressionism has grown more oblique, dispensing with road imagery in favor of a kind of philosophical compass. "I just didn't want to write any more songs that dealt with actual road themes, even though a few of them crept up."

Nonetheless, the road beckons again for Son Volt, this time with a mostly acoustic tour that brings them to the Somerville Theatre on Wednesday. Whether the "more rock, less country" material on the new disc garners them any commercial success, however, isn't really an issue for Farrar and Boquist. "It's less about the style and more about what kind of musicians and people we are," says Boquist. "At this point, we're not going to be an overnight sensation. We're in music for the long haul."

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