25 Years Later: Revisiting Son Volt’s Seminal Debut ‘Trace’

Reminiscent of that sustained burst of inspiration by which he formed Son Volt in 1994, founder and group leader Jay Farrar has been on a creative roll since 2016’s Notes of Blue. Following that return to the crackling, country-tinged rock and roll at which his band excels, a vivid testament to our tumultuous times arrived three years later in the form of the aptly (ironically?) titled Union, selections from which comprise much of the late 2020 summer release of 26Live, a collection of concert recordings from the previous year’s tour in support of the topical masterwork (plus yet another brand-new tune “These Are The Times”).

This digital-only compendium is in lieu of live performances precluded by the pandemic, some of which, had they happened, would also include the band playing most, if not all, the material from Trace in recognition of the Son Volt debut on its twenty-fifth anniversary of 9/19/95 (to which the online exclusive’s title alludes). After the seminal alt-country/Americana band Uncle Tupelo dissolved following 1993’s Anodyne, Jay Farrar established a group under this cryptic moniker to continue the wide-ranging pioneering of American music and the consummately-prepared two-decade milestone package of their first record extends and deepens the process. 

Its issue also confirms the extent to which Farrar is justifiably proud of that piece of work: the taciturn musician and songwriter even deigned to conduct interviews with journalists. Yet, those overtures to the press were in addition to his general oversight of the package as the musician/songwriter produced the reissue and was involved in the remastering of the original eleven track studio album. As a result, both the acoustic and electric textures of guitars, fiddle, and banjo radiate an almost tactile presence that makes the emotion even more resonant within lyrics of songs such as “Windfall” and “Tear-Stained Eye.” 

The cautious optimism of the former permeates the material of Trace (and that of the most recent LP’s as well) and also finds a direct echo in the closing, a cover of Ron Wood’s “Mystifies Me.” That cut’s easygoing sense of self-awareness also emanates as well from the song-by-song notes written by  Farrar and while the absence of song lyrics within the same booklet would make this thirty-seven track set truly comprehensive, it’s an omission largely mitigated by No Depression magazine founder Peter Blackstock’s healthily-detached prose reminiscence of the genesis of Son Volt. 

His vivid depiction of the quartet’s early bonding becomes further amplified through the inclusion on disc two of a 1996 appearance at New York’s now-defunct Bottom Line. The band proceeds through the bulk of Trace (plus “Cemetery Savior,” a song that would appear on their sophomore album Straightaways) with equal parts confidence and authority, validation of Farrar’s decision to proceed in his chosen direction, with his own group (here in its original configuration, comprised of Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, bassist/vocalist Jim Boquist, plus his multi-instrumentalist sibling Dave). Particularly noteworthy is the rendition of Del Reeves’ “Looking at the World Through A Windshield” that concludes the set and connects directly to Son Volt’s near pure country album of 2013, Honky Tonk.

The additional inclusion of Uncle Tupelo tracks played this February night, among them “Anodyne” and “Slate,” only reaffirms the abandon with which the ensemble rocks for the better part of the show: the latter is a bittersweet acoustic exception to the aforementioned rule of requisite punch. And hearing this sequence of cuts in order makes for an insightful segue from the unreleased material as the eight demos at the end of disc one depict the evolution of the original material with understated immediacy; the author plays all the instruments. but even in stripped-down form, songs like “Loose String” and the acoustic demo of “Route” belie the forlorn tone of his voice. The clear-headed resolve that’s earmarked Jay Farrar’s career since its inception is as readily apparent and utterly convincing in these somewhat rough-hewn recordings as in the technically-contemporized studio work and the newly-mixed performances that accompany them. 

But that attitude is one of the major threads of continuity in the existence of Son Volt over the course of its quarter-century history. As such, it should come as no surprise that particular state of mind renders Trace provocative listening in all its forms but also pervades subsequent releases under the aegis of the band: 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot and, two years later, The Search have both become available in expanded versions over the last couple years. Like the milestone edition of the initial effort, these equally immersive sets serve to reaffirm the fundamental premise of the ensemble’s existence, that is, Son Volt’s staunch loyalty to their musical roots and their purposefully eclectic explorations thereof.

 

 

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