Americana and Alternative Country artists post-2013 can easily fall into tempting traps chasing the sounds and studio dynamic of Jason Isbell, Dave Cobb, and Sturgill Simpson. Promising artists end up turning out stale and repetitive records simply for the sake of either sounding lo-fi or trying too hard to think of ten thoughtful words when one would suffice. Today’s underground independent and Americana worlds would do well to look further back than the 2010s for inspiration. For in the aftermath of the breakup of Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt and released Trace, the band’s debut album in 1995.
Trace is one of the essential alt-counry and Americana records in the history of the underground country world; it can offer lessons to artists across the spectrum on how to be thoughtful with their songwriting while still staying interesting and looking forward.
“Switching it over to AM/searching for that truer sound…”
“Windfall” opens Trace with Farrar’s melancholy and contemplative songwriting coupled with soothing acoustic guitar and fiddle and the masterful addition of steel guitar. Farrar is just passing through- an unbiased observer on a car ride through the American South. “Windfall” is hopeful and defiant, begging for truth in a fast-moving world.
But, after “Windfall,” the listener will be mistaken if he or she simply expects the rest of the record to feature Farrar at his most mournful and melancholic. Farrar is the essential example of a songwriter who proves that writing about existential feelings and moods is not required to go hand-in-hand with subdued production and maybe the quiet addition of slide guitar to keep it interesting.
Electrified Americana. That’s what Farrar and Son Volt give us with Trace. Take “Route.” Farrar writes and sings about the human condition- basically how we’re living. He sings, “we’re all living proof that nothing lasts.” Living proof and nothing lasting are antithetical to one another; yet Farrar partners those two paradigms to give us one whole thought. Existential. But with rocking guitar and a steady beat.
Farrar continues with his meditative ideas on “Loose String,” one of the more underrated tracks on Trace. A distinctive guiatr riffs opens the song before Farrar later belts out a pre-chorus that includes the line, “Too much living is no way to die.” Nowhere in the song does Farar suggest that we should live our lives subdued and without taking chances; rather, Farrar is arguing that we should always be aware of the life we’re living- the chances we *do* take, the ideas we stand for, and the power of the song.
Jay Farrar is the greatest alternative-country artist of all-time. And yet he can also be one hell of a straight-country artist when it’s called for. “Tear Stained Eye” is one of the standout tracks of Trace and still one of Son Volt’s most beloved songs. “Tear Stained Eye” features Farrar’s legendary blend of melancholy and hopefulness with steel and acoustic guitar. He opens the song with, “Walking down main street, getting to know the concrete/looking for a purpose from a neon sign.” Searching, always searching. There’s a restlessness found in Farrar’s writing, traced all the way back to his work in Uncle Tupelo. Farrar begins “Tear Stained Eye” looking for answers; by the last couple lines he realizes how small each of us is in the grand scheme of things and finds solace in a man telling him, “rode hard and put away wet/throw away the bad news and put it to rest.” Time is an awesome power, and we have to take advantage of it. “Truth is a state of mind,” Farrar sings.
“Tear Stained Eye” and so many more of Farrar’s songs are distinct because they don’t try to be something they’re not. Furthermore, Farrar doesn’t allow the song to dictate who he is as an artist. If the production and writing lend themselves to a rocking alternative country song, Farrar lets that style take shape. And if Farrar finds himself composing a simple country-infuenced ballad, he doesn’t fight it. So many artists today try to take a song in a specific direction and are convinced it can work. Farrar shows us that it’s possible to write about contrasting ideas in an interesting and marked way. We don’t need artists spoon-feeding us every thought they may have over an acoustic and lo-fi arrangement. Sometimes we just need to hear a song and figure it out for ourselves. And that’s what makes Trace such an essential and crucial album for all times.