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Trace, 20 Years On: Farrar's Lasting Road Portrait

by John Schacht

June 23, 2016

Photos: (above) Shot from the original sessions for Trace in 1995; (middle, top to bottom) The Jay Farrar Trio, including Farrar, Eric Heywood and Gary Hunt; (bottom) The original Son Volt line-up on Austin City Limits.

Ever since the automobile became the American cultural sine qua non, the road trip has represented its most prominent manifestation. Kerouacian tours of self-discovery, American Graffiti rites of passage, Robert Frank's foreigner's-eye photographs, Springsteen's Born to Run birthright—all of them played out via the highways and byways of America.  

Two decades ago a lesser-known, but no less formidable, entry into this iconic American genre appeared when Son Volt's first LP, Trace, debuted in 1995, following the acrimonious split of Uncle Tupelo songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Farrar's Trace, a sobering, gritty view of a dying American heartland with the Mississippi River serving as a narrative and literal red thread, celebrates its 20th anniversary reissue at the Neighborhood Theatre Saturday night at 8 p.m., with Farrar accompanied by Son Volt's original pedal steel ace Eric Heywood and multi-instrumentalist Gary Hunt. Of the LP's anniversary, no less a personage than Tweedy heralded it via Twitter: "Happy 20th Ann. to Son Volt’s Trace,” he wrote, "a great record that stands the test of time."

In the wake of what's happened afterwards, it's easy to forget that it was Tweedy's Wilco debut, A.M., that fired the first post-Uncle Tupelo shot. A fine recording in its own right, A.M. briefly stamped Tweedy, not Farrar, as country rock's new torch-bearer. But six months later Trace emerged and immediately reshuffled the deck, finishing No. 13 on the influential Pazz & Jop critic's poll that year. It turned out to be a defining moment in both artist's careers. Guitarist Brian Henneman, a friend to both, told Chicago critic Greg Kot, "It's like Jay had something to prove with that first album, an urgency to it that none of his albums since have had. I felt he had a chip on his shoulder, and it shows up in the music. It was stunning. It was humbling. I think that kicked Jeff in the ass."

And Tweedy wisely took note. He abandoned A.M.'s doctrinaire twang for a series of sonically more adventurous LPs that have kept Wilco evolving into new musical territories with on-going acclaim; Farrar produced maybe the perfect record of the genre in Trace, and in so doing has never since lived up to the bar it set.

Though it has stood the test of time so far, surveying Trace's impact means noting the music landscape at the time of its release. Back then, Nashville country music was headlong in its devolution into cookie cutter pop music, with Garth Brooks' slick stadium shows presaging his faux rock 'n' roll alter-ego Chris Gaines a few years later, and 1998's country Grammy winner Shania Twain playing "country" music indistinguishable from alternative rock.

Trace presented a sonic counter-narrative. It was a hard-hitting chronicle of life on the road that crystallized all of the themes Farrar had begun exploring in Uncle Tupelo, a band steeped in outlaws and outcasts, from the Carter Family and Merle Haggard to the Byrds and the Minutemen. Buoyed by the modest success of the single “Drowned,” whose chorus—“When in doubt, move on/No need to sort it out”—was taken as Farrar’s final word on Uncle Tupelo, Trace garnered critical praise from most quarters for fashioning classic and contemporary elements into arresting new shapes. With vital contributions from Heywood's luminous pedal steel swells, Trace’s songs alternated between propulsive guitar rock and classic country that sounded like it’d been around for decades.

In his narratives, Farrar traced his journeys up and down the Mississippi, from New Orleans—where he’d relocated briefly after Uncle Tupelo’s demise—to his hometown St. Louis and up to the Twin Cities area, where Trace was demoed and recorded in as live a fashion as possible. The record read as both a celebration and elegy for the American heartland that Farrar traversed. Filled with images of billboard signs, highway markers, flooded river towns, toxic beaches, and miles and miles of interstate, the music was a journey between two countervailing ideals; a paean to the freedom found on the open road, and a cautionary tale about its limitations and siren-like qualities.

Opening with the song that would become a live staple for Son Volt and Farrar’s solo career, the loping twang and world-wizened aphorisms of “Windfall” made it a certifiable country classic in every sense but the modern Nashville one. With pedal steel and fiddle supplying the high end, and Farrar’s time-worn voice the low, the song captured the musical ethos of its final stanza—“Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana/Sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven”—and celebrated the open road in its sing-along chorus, “Both feet on the floor/Two hands on the wheel/May the wind take your troubles away.” But as he did throughout Trace, Farrar leavened the carefree ride with an injection of realism that grounded the song, warning that you could “never seem to get far enough/Staying in between the lines.”

"You get to experience a different way of life on the road," Farrar said during an interview we did in 2003. "It's usually life intensified. You're meeting a lot of people that you wouldn't meet otherwise and finding yourself in a lot of different situations that you wouldn't normally be in. So you're forced to question a lot of things that you encounter, and I think you grow stronger from being in that situation."

Farrar used much the same musical formula, only replacing fiddle with banjo, on the equally plangent “Tear-Stained Eye,” which chronicled the 1993 flooding of the town Saint Genevieve, about 70 miles south of St. Louis on the Mississippi. But, befitting the writing prowess that set him apart from most authenticity-hungry contemporaries, Farrar made the road and river fecund metaphors for the passage of time, our own transience, and the questionable existence of God: “Can you deny, there's nothing greater, nothing more than the traveling hands of time?/Saint Genevieve can hold back the water, but saints don't bother with a tear stained eye.”

Two more acoustic  numbers—“Ten Second News” and “Out of the Picture”—interspersed among the rockers, the former notable for Dave Boquist’s thick lap-steel lines, and the latter for the photograph-as-memento mori metaphor at the center of its narrative: “You may be lost, you’ll find/Just another paradigm/Just a stop-frame in time/Then you’re out of the picture/And somewhere along the way the clock runs out/somewhere along the way it all stands still.”

As effecting as the twangy numbers are, it's their contrast with the driving, punk-tinged rock that make both stand out. “Live Free” and “Drown” used the blasted guitar, stop/start and tempo-shift blueprint Farrar had cadged from the Minutemen and used so effectively on Uncle Tupelo’s first two records, while “Loose String” and “Catching On” buzz with raw, Crazy Horse guitar energy. On the former, Farrar renounces the wilder ways of his younger self—“Too much living is no way to die,” he sings—while conceding that living in the moment remains tempting because “half the trouble’s in the asking” of these questions in the first place.

All of these questions unwind on the road, the favored means of young Americans exorcising—or exercising—their demons through music and touring. Many return home chastised but wiser; some get addicted to the wanderlust and never get the road out of their blood. And once and a while, a lucky few learn something memorable in the crucible, and return with the artifacts of proof, sharing traces of the journey. 

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Tags: Trace, Kerouac, Jay Farrar, Son Volt, rock 'n' roll, road trip, Robert Frank, Wilco, Jeff Tweedy, Born to Run, Minutemen, Uncle Tupelo, the Byrds, country music

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