Son Volt are one half of the remains of Uncle Tupelo, a bunch of young Midwestern roots rockers who now command a near-mythical reputation. While Nirvana were banging the guts out of traditional rock tools, Uncle Tupelo selected to also pick up mandolins, steel guitars and fiddles and proceed to bang sounds out of them.
Before Uncle Tupelo's two songwriters - Son Volt's Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy (now fronting Wilco) - went their respective ways in 1993, they recorded four albums. The first of these was 1990's No Depression, and the title has been taken up by a magazine of the same name that energetically flags up the "altcountry" scene.
Given that both singer-guitarist Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn were in Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt are understandably viewed as the biggest hitters in that scene. However, being plonked at the forefront of a new genre doesn't move Farrar. "It's not really a label that we asked for," he drawls. "Certainly there are other bands that have done similar things of mixing country, blues and folk and whatever in a rock context before. It's a cyclical thing, but over the past couple of years, people have been paying more attention."
Rolling Stone picked Son Volt's 1995 debut Trace as one of the 10 best albums of that year. It's a powerfully confident mix of frenetic guitars and aching ballads which according to Farrar was written "at a time when I was living in New Orleans, rehearsing with the band in St Louis and recording in Minneapolis. Some days I'd been driving 24 hours and some of the lyrics reflected that."
That's something of an understatement, as throughout Trace, Farrar interweaves personal yearnings and feelings about life on the road ("I want to see your smile through a payphone") with references to AM radio stations, winding river roads and lonely main streets of smalltown USA.
Their new album, Straightaways, is "kind of a continuation of Trace. It's a reflection of what the band had been going through, which was playing a lot of shows. So we wanted to do the recording as a straight-ahead approach with all the same instrumentation we'd been using on the road."
It's a slower and less immediately accessible effort than their debut, with the upbeat guitars replaced largely by sprawling acoustics with forays into country blues. Still, it's a vivid piece of work that makes you want to get over there and drive every lonely byway of the Midwest late at night.
Meanwhile, prior to his soundcheck in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Farrar is otherwise proving polite but taciturn. He was probably thinking about how to describe playing an out-of season seaside resort in the twisted, lyrical style that makes Son Volt really stand out.
Son Volt (+ Peter Bruntnell) play Dingwalls (0171-267 0545) 5 NovReuse content