The road has assumed an almost mythological role in the work of many of America's greatest songwriters who have found emotional solace and metaphorical significance in the highways and back roads that cut through cities, towns, and map-dot whistle stops. In 1929 Mississippi bluesman Charley Patton wandered to worlds unknown "Down the Dirt Road," fleeing the oppression of the Delta and indulging in his prodigious passion for wanton wanderlust. Hard-drinking, hard-living honky-tonker Hank Williams saw his tragic life unfold along a "Lost Highway," forging a path for later self-destructive travelers, from Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to Merle Haggard and Steve Earle. For a young Bruce Springsteen, the road represented a kind of salvation -- a gateway to promised lands and better days. Only when he approached middle age did he learn that, despite romantic notions to the contrary, those roads lead nowhere unless you know where you're going.
Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar has journeyed along the same roads as his traveling forefathers, both on his own and with his former band Uncle Tupelo. But like the hard-bitten protagonist in Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad," Farrar isn't kidding himself about where those roads lead. "Mother Road remains/It provides no more," he states in "Route," from Son Volt's 1995 debut Trace, before resigning to the fact that "they can only take us away."
Trace is loaded with images gleaned from the driver's seat of an old car: Billboards and bars flash by along depressed, neon-lit main streets; levees give in to the pressure of treacherous flood waters; polluted beaches are awash with dioxin. Meanwhile, the driver's mind wanders in the dark comfort of midnight, thinking about wasted potential and the futility of ambition, buffered only by the sound of steel guitars wafting in from an AM station with a playlist lifted straight from 1963. "May the wind take your troubles away," goes the pleading chorus of "Windfall," Trace's opener. Farrar never delves too deeply into what those troubles may be. Throughout the album, though, those troubles linger -- like mosquitoes hovering in the hot, humid air, or the incessant, tugging hum of steel belts rolling over asphalt.
Farrar isn't too keen on the idea of elaborating on the troubled songs that make up Trace. Shy to a fault, and by his own admission not too interested in engaging in open-heart discussion, the 29-year-old Farrar is a reluctant interview. He speaks in short sentences, which more times than not trail off abruptly into silence. His voice is low and he speaks in a monotone, punctuating his drone with deep sighs and the occasional yawn. "I don't hate them," he says of interviews, during a short one held over the phone in the midst of a tour stop outside Boston. "They're a hard thing to get acclimated to, I guess."
His reticence is palpable, but it is also understandable. For the better part of the year since Trace was released, Farrar has been bombarded by questions concerning not so much his new band and his latest batch of songs but his old band Uncle Tupelo, which Farrar pulled the plug on in 1994. He broke from the band that he formed in his hometown of Belleville, Illinois, with his high school buddy Jeff Tweedy. The group released four albums, beginning with 1990's No Depression and ending with Anodyne, a brilliant work from 1993 that documented just how far the group had taken its groundbreaking and wildly influential fusion of punk aggression, rock classicism, and country-and-western melancholy.
Following his Tupelo exit, Farrar moved to New Orleans to write the songs for what would soon become Son Volt (a quartet that includes bassist Jim Boquist, his brother Dave Boquist on guitar and fiddle, and early Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn). Tweedy and the remaining members of Tupelo regrouped as Wilco and released a wonderful debut album last year titled A.M. Trace was issued about a month later; comparisons in the press were inevitable. Questions were bound to be asked.
"I didn't exactly look forward to answering those questions," Farrar admits of the barrage of queries relating to the breakup of Tupelo and the merits of his ex-pal's new group. For the record, Farrar liked the Wilco album, and although they haven't spoken since he quit the band, Farrar sent Tweedy a note of admiration upon A.M.'s release. As for the breakup, Farrar says succinctly, "We just ran out of gas."
In Uncle Tupelo, Farrar and Tweedy worked much like Lennon and McCartney, sharing songwriting credits but mostly working alone; basically, whoever took the lead vocal probably wrote most of the song. Their rough-hewn voices meshed beautifully, with Tweedy's hoarse, playful tones tempering the deep, mournful moan of Farrar. As songwriters, they worked different patches of emotional soil. Though both men wrestled frequently in song with depression and melancholy, Tweedy usually took the role of lovable loser, bringing humor to even his darkest moments of self-doubt (e.g., "Watch Me Fall," from the 1991 album Still Feel Gone). His outlook is defined best on "Flatness," a waltzy highlight from Tupelo's debut in which he observes: "There's darkness in this life/But the brighter side we also may view."
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."
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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.