“Can you deny that there’s nothing greater, nothing more than the traveling hands of time?” The fact that Jay Farrar wants to know is a product of his geography. Belleville, Illinois is equidistant from either coast and in that deepest part of the Midwest where the sun dries the spit out of your mouth. Space and time is all we have here — and not in the Fabric of the Cosmos sense, but in the passages through stale barrooms (“too much living is no way to die”) and vacant highways that are measured in A.M. radio frequencies. One of two rock stars to hail from the town (Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy co-created alt.country pioneers Uncle Tupelo with Farrar in the late eighties), Farrar has crafted Son Volt’s identity in that vein. The snapshot of the band’s moment in history is all here in A Retrospective: 1995-2000.
If you’re itching to call it country rock or alt.country or cow-punk or folk or Americana or whatever, forget about labels for a minute: Son Volt says they were influenced by truck-driving music. Farrar updates Del Reeves’s “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” into a modernized version of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” with a country chorus. Farrar’s baritone belongs on the list of great, gravelly American voices that includes the aforementioned Man in Black, Tom Waits and Mark Lanegan. His conviction ensures there’s never a contrived moment, and this is crucial — if you’re going to get away with a line like “let the wind take your troubles away” on the folk jam “Windfall,” you’d better know what you’re doing.
The extras here make this compilation essential. Three of the previously unreleased covers are remarkable: Woody Guthrie’s “I’ve Got to Know” (which stands up to anything on Wilco and Billy Bragg’s Mermaid Avenue compositions), Springsteen’s “Open All Night,” and Leadbelly’s “Ain’t No More Cane.” The rough demos and live takes of Son Volt standards “Tear Stained Eye,” “Loose String” and “Medicine Hat” complement the record’s material nicely and provide something for the uninitiated and the well-versed.
The face of nineties alt.country, the five members of Son Volt made the most of their time and place. It will be interesting to see if Farrar can continue to execute in the new millennium. He’s constructed a new supporting cast, and the first new Son Volt album in seven years, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, is set for release this summer. If he succeeds, it will be contrary to his reality as expressed in “Route”: “We’re all living proof that nothing lasts.” But that was a long time ago.