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There was no such brightness for Farrar, whose pessimism ran as deep as John Fogerty's. Certainly there is a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival in "Looking for a Way Out," a standout Farrar track from Tupelo's Still Feel Gone: "There was a time/You could put it out of your mind/Leave it all behind/That time is gone." He explored the cause and effects of alcoholism in such early Tupelo classics as "Still Be Around," "Before I Break," and "Whiskey Bottle"), and his folky cynicism also helped shape Tupelo's third album March 16-20, 1992. The largely acoustic set, produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, juxtaposed gloomy prewar country covers a la "Coalminers" and "Moonshiner" with originals that lent voice to a legion of downtrodden rural outcasts. The album included some of Farrar's best work, including "Shaky Ground," "Wipe the Clock," and the tear-jerking "Criminals."
To be sure, March 16-20, 1992 was an audacious conceit -- a punk kid in his mid-twenties writing songs meant to stand next to the legendary work of the Louvin Brothers and the Carter Family -- but one that echoed Farrar's small-town upbringing in Belleville, a rural-industrial town that is also home to Buddy Ebsen, Jimmy Connors, and Stag beer. Farrar's dad worked for the Army Corps of Engineers and had a passion for old cars and music instruments; the former he stockpiled in the back yard, while the latter crammed the confines of the family living room.
"It was something I grew up around," says Farrar of the hard-boiled country and western that Uncle Tupelo funneled into the primal punk and garage rock the group first played as the Primitives. "My parents played country music and folk music around the house all the time, but it wasn't something I accepted until later. I guess ultimately you have to branch out from the three-chord bashing-out rock to something that can encompass different moods. I've always been drawn to types of music that are more cathartic. I guess I've always been drawn to performers with the blues."
Farrar's blues haunt the very framework of Trace, an amalgam of aching country balladry, graceful folk musings, and biting guitar-frenzied hard rock -- of wasted lives, stifled dreams, and bitter realizations. It's a dark, grim ride. "Drown" opens with a near-Pentecostal portrait of natural disaster run amuck, while "Too Early" takes a despondent look at a tortured country poet (namely Townes Van Zandt). "Tear Stained Eye" offers a bleak travelogue of a journey along the Mississippi River banks, through the small towns of Farrar's youth. On "Route," his pessimism turns to seething rage before he finally collapses under its weight, signaling his defeat with the realization that "we're all living proof that nothing lasts."
Oddly, Farrar says his writing on Trace is his most optimistic yet, although he's not sure how it connects to his work with Uncle Tupelo, nor does he care to acknowledge any growth as a songwriter. "I don't necessarily hear any evolution there," he says of his new work. "I guess it's more positive. It was kind of liberating to be doing something different than what I did with Uncle Tupelo. You could say it borders on being optimistic, I guess, because it's sort of venturing into the unknown, so to speak." This last line causes him to laugh for the first time in the course of a half-hour interview. Then he hedges on the comment.
"That wasn't intended to be a heavy statement."
Son Volt performs Sunday, September 1, during the H.O.R.D.E. Festival at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 407-795-8883. Showtime is 3:00. Tickets cost $28.