It was almost 40 years ago that Jay Farrar started playing music with his brothers in their garage in southern Illinois. They called themselves The Plebes, and a friend of his from school, Jeff Tweedy, joined in early on. In ’84, Farrar’s brother Dade left, Mike Heidorn joined, and The Plebes changed their name to The Primitives. By 1987, Wade Farrar (not to be confused with Dade) was gone too, and the now-three-piece band — Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn — changed their name again. Now, they were Uncle Tupelo — their mascot, more or less, was a fat cartoon Elvis. And they were great.
It’s the cliché of all clichés in talking about music, but they really were doing something new. They wrote like Woody Guthrie and they played like the Minutemen. The music was grating and loud and in-your-face and then, before you knew it, it was a folk ballad with a single acoustic guitar. It was Gram Parsons and Hank Williams (the real Hank Williams) and The Allman Brothers and punk rock and the blues and anything else that would fit all rolled up together. They call it alt-country now, but the label doesn’t do it justice. Americana would be a better word if that word hadn’t been overused to the point of meaninglessness. That’s really what it was though: authentic American music — eclectic and raw and real. No Depression, the genre’s flagship publication — which, by the way, takes its name from that of Uncle Tupelo’s first album — has described its subject as “alternative-country music (whatever that is).”
The movement’s defining band had a rocky road from the start, fueled mostly by conflict between Farrar and Tweedy. (Each one thought he was the band’s defining artistic voice and rightful front man. Tweedy was wrong.) They broke up in 1994, having released only four studio albums over seven years. Heidorn had already left in ’92 to get married and had been replaced by three new members. All three went with Tweedy to form Wilco, which has achieved moderate fame with its weird-hipster-alt-pop-rock and unnecessarily strange album titles. Their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) barely made the cut for Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time; the justification for its placement at #493 calls the album (for whatever reason) “Wilco’s great leap forward” — probably a more fitting description than the author meant it to be. (It should be noted that this same list places four Beatles albums in the top ten, and ten across the whole 500, so the judgment of its compilers should not be taken seriously at all.)
Farrar, meanwhile, sought out Heidorn again, and, together with brothers Jim and Dave Boquist, formed Son Volt. Within a year they had put out their first album, Trace. It was, in many ways, the culmination of Uncle Tupelo’s work — the best of the rock-folk blend and brutally poetic lyrics that had defined Uncle Tupelo could be found in Son Volt’s debut. It certainly settled the question of who had been Uncle Tupelo’s guiding voice.
After two more albums, Straightaways (1997) and Wide Swing Tremolo (1998), following closely in the Uncle Tupelo mold, Son Volt took a hiatus, only to reappear in 2004 with a new lineup, a more refined sound, and another masterpiece album: Okemah and the Melody of Riot. The band has undergone a few more lineup changes since, and the sound has seen the inevitable fluctuations expected of a two-decade run, but Son Volt has remained one of alt-country’s leading groups. All along — through Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and plenty of other side projects — Jay Farrar was perhaps the single best voice in a movement that gave a unique artistic expression to experiences of middle America. He wrote about the lives and troubles and trials of everyday people, and he did it as well as anyone. And then the world ended.
Or so you would think to hear Son Volt’s latest album, Union (2019). Every song — literally, every single song — is a protest against the Trump administration. Now, Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt have never shied away from protest music or lefty politics — hell, anyone who cites Woody Guthrie as a major influence has to be dangerously close to blood-red-commie territory. There’s plenty of great music that voices terrible politics, and most conservatives have learned to deal with that. But there has to be some kind of a line beyond which it becomes just unbearable. With Union, Farrar crossed that line and kept driving until he hit the ocean.
One track, “The 99,” opens with a line that sounds more like the Soviet Union than Trump’s America: “Journalists in jail for covering the scene . . .” (No journalist, to my knowledge, has been jailed for “covering the scene” by the Trump administration.) Oddly enough, the Trump–Soviet confusion features even more explicitly in “The Perilous Night,” by Drive-By Truckers, whose streak from Pizza Deliverance (1999) to The Dirty South (2004) presents the only real competition for the genre’s golden age against the Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt 1990–98 peak. It seems that Trump derangement has hit more than one alt-country great, and the results aren’t looking good.
The next lines (“Profit columns rise for the corporate machines. Take the stand now, protest and holler. Desecration of the land for the almighty dollar.”) suggest some kind of Randian anarcho-capitalism that’s not really supported by anybody in the present administration, or anybody who lives above ground level. Nowhere in the album does Farrar actually engage any realistic version of the world we’re living in.
More importantly, he never once addresses any real experiences with the emotional depth and genuineness that made the early stuff so great. When Uncle Tupelo wrote way back in the day about the fear of getting drafted into a Middle Eastern war, their bad politics still made good music because it focused on the personal, the intimate, and the real, and it crafted a depiction of an American life that made sense to people who had lived it. That’s what people wanted to hear, not preachy abstractions about the supposed failings of U.S. policy and the personal shortcomings of a given public official. Most people are sick of even hearing that stuff on the news. Why would they want it in their music too?
One of Jay Farrar’s most underrated songs — and just about everything that preceded this abomination is underrated, really — is “True to Life” (a principle he has clearly forgotten) from Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone (1992). I was recently reminded of its opening lines: “I can only sing it loud, always try to sing it clear. What the hell are we all doing here? Making too much of nothing, or creating one unholy mess . . .”
Jay Farrar was, in better days, a prophet.