Son Volt, Straightaways

After alt-country forefathers Uncle Tupelo disbanded in the spring of 1994, principle songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy formed two opposing camps: Son Volt and Wilco. (Well, at least that’s how some fans see it.) No powder and guns -- just vintage guitars and songs. Son Volt unfurled the country and folk-rock banners, while Wilco started out alt-country but wandered far beyond, delving into proggy, Dad-rock territory (and enjoying much more commercial success because of it).

Son Volt’s debut, ‘Trace,’ which arrived in September 1995, was a collection of 10 originals and one Ronnie Wood cover. The band featured Farrar, Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, bassist Jim Boquist and his brother, Dave, on just about everything else. ‘Trace’ is often singled out by critics as the band’s peak performance, and it's listed among the best albums of the era. With clear momentum behind the band, single ‘Drown’ received FM radio and MTV airplay, and the band performed an acoustic version on the short-lived ‘VH1 Crossroads.’

Two months after the one-year anniversary of ‘Trace,’ Son Volt performed a live set on the legendary Austin City Limits stage, dipping into the nascent Son Volt catalog, Farrar-penned Tupelo songs and nuggets from the forthcoming album, 1997’s ‘Straightaways,’ which today turns 16.

In early press, Farrar referred to 'Straightaways' as a ‘companion piece’ to ‘Trace,’ but overall, it was a markedly slower-moving and stylistically less-commercial album. It starts off with a cannon shot (‘Caryatid Easy’) but has just two other up-tempo rockers (‘Picking Up the Signal’ and ‘Cemetery Savior’). The majority of the album is acoustic country folk -- something the band revisited this year on ‘Honky Tonk’ -- with sparse arrangements, electric-lite instrumentation and a dearth of foot-tapper moments. Case and point: ‘Been Set Free,’ a slack-tuned blues number devoid of a backbeat. Farrar was not gunning for another ‘Drown’ moment by any stretch of the imagination.

But time signatures don’t make or break an album. ‘Straightaways’ re-imagined alt-country by tipping its cap to vintage country’s wooden-worshiping forefathers. It strikes us as the not-so-distant cousin of Uncle Tupelo’s ‘March 16-20, 1992,’ which put the sonic emphasis on the past and featured mostly acoustic traditionals. To wit: The aforementioned ‘Been Set Free’ is a Farrar-penned sequel to the traditional ‘Lilli Schull,’ which Tupelo included on the ‘March’ album.

Somewhat astoundingly, the less-commercial route paid off for the band, with ‘Straightaways’ peaking at No. 44 on the Billboard 200 (‘Trace’ only hit 166). Despite the stronger chart showing, the album hardly gets mentioned in the same breath as ‘Trace’ and has largely been overlooked, critically.

Maybe 16 years on, it’s time to give it another try.

Listen to Son Volt's 'Caryatid Easy' from 'Straightaways'