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Members include Dave Boquist, guitars, fiddle, banjo, lap steel; Jim Boquist, backing vocals, bass; Jay Farrar (born December 26, 1966, in Belleville, Illinois), vocals, guitar; Mike Heidorn, drums. Addresses: Record company--Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694. Website--http://www.wbr.com/sonvolt or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Born from the ashes of the critically-loved Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt's emergence in 1995 was one of the most closely watched of the year, as rock critics and alt-country fans alike tried to determine if Jay Farrar, one of that band's two leaders, could continue to craft winning, weary songs without songwriting partner Jeff Tweedy. The answer, apparently, was yes. While Tweedy went on to form the more lighthearted Wilco, the solemn-voiced Farrar carried the darker torch in the form of Son Volt and laid to rest any concerns about whether or not he could pen songs on his own, winning over critics and fans alike while managing to stay true to his rural roots.
The seeds from which Son Volt would eventually spring were sown in Farrar's childhood. The youngest of four boys (the others being John, Wade and Dade), Farrar grew up primarily in Belleville, Illinois, a town almost a half an hour away from St. Louis. Although his father worked on a dredge boat, Farrar did not see his family as traditionally working-class. His father collected old cars and instruments, so like his siblings, Farrar developed an early fascination with music, starting to learning to play guitar at age eleven. His mother, who owned a used bookstore where Farrar worked by day, taught him how to play. "It was a good environment to grow up in," he was quoted in a 1997 interview in Option. "Both of my parents had an appreciation for music, and a willingness to pass on what they knew."
Finding small-town farm life stifling, he saw music as a way to escape. Along with older brother Wade, and high school friends Tweedy and Mike Heidorn, Farrar got his start as a high schooler in the Primitives, a primarily 1960s cover band. Although initially compelled by the punk rock bands they saw perform at shows in St. Louis, the teens soon found fresher inspiration in plaintive classics by country artists like Hank Williams and George Jones.
Wade Farrar's departure from the band around 1987 to join the Army was an event that precipitated the birth of Uncle Tupelo, a band that would blend the twin influences of country and punk. The band became cult favorites and released three country-flavored rock albums on the independent label Rockville (to which they were signed in 1989) before they were signed to Warner Brothers' Sire division in 1993. For financial reasons, Heidorn left the band before it recorded for Sire.
Ironically, by the time Uncle Tupelo's major label debut, Anodyne, was released by Sire in 1993, the band was on the verge of dissolution. Uncle Tupelo officially called it quits the following year, citing the usual creative differences. As producer Brian Paulson, who worked on that album as well as the debuts of Tupelo splinter groups Wilco and Son Volt, told Steve Appleford of the Los Angeles Times in 1996, "The tension on Anodyne is kind of apparent, as far as I'm concerned. Stylistically, it starts to diverge quite a bit."
In the wake of the break-up, Farrar relocated for a period to New Orleans, reportedly the site of his family's only vacation. There, he focused on penning songs that would become the basis of Son Volt's debut album.
Naming itself in honor of the legendary bluesman Son House, Son Volt formed in 1995 and reunited Farrar and Heidorn, who was then doing production work for a local newspaper. The formation of the band, with Farrar at the head, forced the notoriously shy and reticent songwriter more into the spotlight than he had been as a member of Uncle Tupelo. He would rather speak through his music.
With their own backgrounds in rootsy rock and country, the Boquist brothers, who grew up in the tiny Minnesota farming town of Rosemount before moving to Minneapolis, were logical choices to round out the group. Since the 1980s, the brothers had singly or jointly performed with bands like the Jayhawks, the Replacements, and Soul Asylum. Jim Boquist, who met Farrar in the early 1990s while playing bass for Joe Henry during an Uncle Tupelo tour, had remained in touch with Farrar over the years. Thus, when Farrar needed to assemble additional musicians to record post-Uncle Tupelo songs, he turned to Jim, and then Dave Boquist as well.
Work on Son Volt's first album started with the recording of demos in Illinois. The band then headed to Minnesota for recording sessions for Trace for Warner Bros., the label with which Farrar still had a record contract. The long drives from his home in New Orleans to see the Boquists in Minneapolis and Heidorn in St. Louis inspired Farrar to write songs like "Tear Stained Eye" for Trace. As Karen Schoemer observed in a 1995 article in Newsweek, as the songwriter traveled "up and down the country, tracing a vertical line along the Mississippi River, Farrar's head filled up with images of aimlessness and wandering, highways and dead ends, neon signs and late-night radio stations. Like any good writer, he filtered them all into his work."
Following its much-anticipated release in 1995, Trace garnered a host of glowing accolades from the music press and landed in a number of critics' year-end Top Ten picks. In a review that appeared in the Detroit News in 1995, Eric Fiedler of the Associated Press called Trace "magnificent" and "mesmerizing." Similarly, Jeff Gordinier wrote in Entertainment Weekly that the band turned "heartland rust into gold" on its first album. "Borrowing from country and lazy, early-'70s Southern California country rock, Son Volt creates music that is at once open to the possibilities of the next vista and suffused with a weary traveler's melancholy," music critic Tom Moon wrote in the Philadelphia Enquirer.
After spending two years together in the studio and on the road, the members of Son Volt noted that their second album, 1997's Straightaways, came more naturally to them. The album re-teamed the band with producer Brian Paulson, who also produced Trace. "Brian Paulson deserves a lot of credit," Dave Boquist was quoted in Option. "Like in photography, you try to get a good negative. I think that's what he tries to do--get the most unadulterated, good sound, so that he doesn't have to fine-tune too much." Among the songs on Straightaways is the ballad "Been Set Free," a song written in response to Uncle Tupelo's "Lilli Schull." Where "Lilli Schull" was written from the perspective of a contrite man imprisoned for the murder of his wife, "Been Set Free," with initial lyrics written by Farrar's wife, tells a similar tale from the woman's perspective.
Although not quite as well-received as Trace, Straightaways also earned a host of favorable reviews. In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, Jim Fusilli wrote that the band "delivers stark, weary ballads with teary-eyed sincerity that's undeniably charming, and uptempo rockers with a natural, unassuming power." Striving, as Rolling Stone critic Rob O'Connor put it, "for a more intimate back-porch vibe" than Trace, Straightaways "is Son Volt rocking at their most forlorn."
by K. Michelle Moran
Son Volt's Career
Formed after Farrar's old band, Uncle Tupelo, split in 1994; while still under contract to Warner Bros., recorded Son Volt's first album, Trace, for the label,1995; Trace named one of Rolling Stone critics' Top Ten albums of the year, 1995; contributed live version of Trace's "Drown" to VH1 Crossroads compilation on Atlantic, 1996; released second album, Straightaways, on Warner Bros., 1997.
- Selective Works
- Trace, Warner Bros. Records, 1995.
- Straightaways, Warner Bros. Records, 1997.
- With others VH1 Crossroads, Atlantic, 1996.
- Buckley, Jonathan, and Mark Ellingham, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 1996.
- DeCurtis, Anthony, James Henke and Holly George-Warren, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.
- Elrewine, Michael, executive editor, All Music Guide to Rock, second edition, Miller Freeman Books, 1997.
- Larkin, Colin, The Guiness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Stockton Press, 1995.
- Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
- Periodicals Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1997; August 8, 1997.
- Detroit Free Press, April 20, 1997.
- Detroit News, November 25, 1995; September 25, 1997.
- Entertainment Weekly, November 10, 1995; October 11, 1996; April 25, 1997.
- Interview, October 1996.
- Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1995; March 17, 1996; April 27, 1997.
- Metro Times (Detroit), September 24, 1997.
- Newsweek, October 2, 1995.
- New York Times, October 30, 1995.
- Option, May/June 1997.
- People, May 12, 1997.
- Philadelphia Enquirer, September 24, 1995.
- Rolling Stone, April 17, 1997.
- Time Out New York, April 24, 1997.
- Tribe Inside, June 1997.
- Wall Street Journal, July 18, 1997.
- Additional information was provided by Warner Bros. Records publicity materials.
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