25 Years Ago Today – Revisiting Son Volt’s Streamlined ‘Straighaways’ Album

The second release by Son Volt, Straightaways, was released a quarter-century ago (4/22/97) and effectively furthered the distinction in direction between the two bands led by former members of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. In contrast to the more experimental approach begun by former partner Jeff Tweedy on Wilco’s Being There, Jay Farrar and his kindred spirits simultaneously streamlined and clarified the folk, blues, and country influences at the heart of their band’s music. 

As such, this sophomore effort provides the stable foundation from which Farrar, with varying lineups, has shifted its emphasis over the course of the unit’s (intermittent) existence. As suggested by the album’s title, however, there are no sharp turns in any direction on Straightaways. Although this opener “Caryatid Easy” would not become so much of a staple in the repertoire as its counterparts here, “Back Into Your World” or “Creosote,” the cacophonous electric guitar clarion call would aid in no small measure to reaffirm the fundamental elements of the Son Volt style. The steadfast and unobtrusive rhythm section of bassist Jim Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn (a Tupelo alumnus) sets in sharp relief the nuanced accents of fiddle, banjo, lap steel pedal steel, and mandolin from versatile multi-instrumentalists Dave Boquist and Eric Heywood respectively.

Otherwise very much akin to Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse– sans extended jamming– Son Volt’s is a more concise, but hardly less raucous rock and roll, it’s country overtones capped with the (overly?) stoic near-monotone of Farrar’s lead vocals as on “Left A Slide.” Yet, like “Way Down Watson” affirms, this band’s chief composer is never so mournful as his singing might sound or nearly so downbeat in expressing himself emotionally or intellectually through often elliptical choices of words. It’s indicative of the astute co-production of Jay and Brian Paulson that the soaring group vocals on “Picking Up The Signal” would precede the wan and woeful vocal of that closing number. 

An equally effective means of mixing up the pace on Straightaways also involves the alternate contrasts and mesh of acoustic and electric textures. Songs like “Cemetery Savior” would sound comparably pungent in either setting. Later albums would not diverge any more appreciably from Straightaways than it differed from its predecessor 1995’s Trace (as is also the case with Jay’s solo work over the years). Yet changes of pace do arise: Farrar and company (with different personnel) implanted a topical undercurrent into American Central Dust and its emphasis on the subject matter is as readily apparent as the stylistic nod to Buck Owens-styled Bakersfield country on Honky Tonk, the very next SV effort, albeit one released four years later.

The founder/leader has balanced efforts under his name along with those of the group just as carefully as he’s led various personnel lineups through musical explorations like the horn-accented The Search. And in its foundation of unusual guitar tunings, 2017’s Notes of Blue further belies the superficial sameness of the entries in the Son Volt canon. Yet the prior work out a decade before would foreshadow Okemah and the Melody of Riot as much as the 2009 effort would presage 2019’s Union and its successor, Electro Melodier, two years later: each of those sets of songs capture the cultural/political zeitgeist of the times, the former from a personal perspective, the latter from a global view, the settings both finely-honed instrumental backdrop echoing its earliest predecessors. 

Those most recent pinnacles of creativity also validate how worthwhile it’s been following these variations on themes of style for twenty-five years plus. The eclecticism of Jay Farrar has never been more concrete than under the aegis of Son Volt on the single-minded Straightaways.

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