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Son Volt makes alt-country cool

The band aims its rebellious blend of roots music at a younger audience.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 1999

Jay Farrar, singer/guitarist for Son Volt, never realized how much his parents' Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie records affected him when he was growing up in rural farm-and-factory-filled Belleville, Ill.

Then in 1984, he and his schoolmates Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidor tried to start a punk rock band called Uncle Tupelo.

The band tried like heck to sound like Dinosaur Jr. and the Sex Pistols. But the tunes kept coming out with an unmistakeable twang. That twang dribbled all over Uncle Tupelo's sound until it was a bona fide marriage of country jangle and punk rock power chords.

With that Appalachia-meets-anarchy spirit, Uncle Tupelo pretty much jump started a genre:

Alt-country, it's called.

After dazzling critics and introducing a new generation to country, Uncle Tupelo split in 1994, fracturing into two new bands, the poppy, country-tinged Wilco (headed by Tweedy) and Farrar's noisier Son Volt, which plays tonight at the State Theatre.

Like Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers in the 1970s, Son Volt has made it cool for kids to rock out to roots music. But Son Volt's punk slant makes the band even more delicious to kids bent on rebellion.

Is there much difference, when it comes right down to it, between Johnny Rotten's snarl and Waylon Jennings' notorious hell raising?

Not that Son Volt is all rebellion and aggression. The band's critically acclaimed third CD, Wide Swing Tremolo, is full of acoustic guitar, pretty harmonies and melancholy lyrics.

Son Volt also takes seriously its role of absorbing and delivering, in its unique way, the traditions of roots music, everything from blues legend Leadbelly to Hank Sr. and folk singer Pete Seeger.

"I like to look back at blues and country," Farrar said in a recent interview. "I'm not sure how it directly affects how we make our music, other than it provides us with a knowledge base and a point of reference."

"I don't think the Rolling Stones ever envisioned punk rock, but they made it possible," Farrar said. "Merle Haggard never envisioned Uncle Tupelo, but he made that possible, too."

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