Son Volt

They call him the working man…

Jay Farrar Son Volt

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Every post on this site is meant to be a constantly evolving diary of my musical views. Therefore, any and all posts should be considered incomplete at any given time.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge with Jay Farrar.

First, let’s get the whole Jeff Tweedy thing out of the way. Whatever issues these Americana Uncles had once upon a time seem increasingly irrelevant as time goes by. Both have built very impressive post-Tupelo careers, to the point where their former musical partnership seems more like a forgotten garage band than anything as relevant as either Son Volt or Wilco. While it is interesting to compare there respective post-Tupelo careers, is it really fair? Tweedy has travelled down and artsy and experimental path, Farrar has hewn pretty close to the heartland rock aesthetic where Anodyne left off (though to be fair, Farrar’s solo efforts are actually fairly experimental in their own right).

OK, now that THAT’s out of the way, let’s talk about what a great songwriter Jay Farrar is, and how Son Volt has 10 fantastic LP’s. And other great tracks as well…


Son Volt Trace LP cover


Release Year: 1995
My Rating: A+

I mean, Trace is still so good that it's pretty shocking that Son Volt is not what Wilco is today. That is, of course, a topic for another time, but let's just appreciate Trace for being the masterpiece that it is.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Windfall", "Tear-Stained Eye", "Drown", "Loose String"

Son Volt Straightaways LP cover


Release Year: 1997
My Rating: B

Well, it turns out this and Wide Swing Tremolo are both perfectly solid records. However, they just don't seem to go much beyond what Trace established. Farrar's songs tend to fall into anonymity, which is a shame, because when you do become familiar with them, you find out they are pretty great.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Caryatid Easy", "Back Into Your World", "Creosote", "Last Minute Shakedown"

Son Volt Wide Swing Tremolo LP cover

Wide Swing Tremolo

Release Year: 1998
My Rating: B

It's impossible not to compare Son Volt's early LP's with Wilco's, and that means this perfectly solid record gets stacked up against Summerteeth, for crying out loud. In truth, it came between Being There and Summerteeth, when Wilco was starting to get their experimental bearings. And on Tremolo, Jay Farrar was starting to experiment too, just not to the same degree. But ultimately, Farrar's songs don't need a lot of extra trappings - they're just solid Americana rock and roll.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Driving the View", "Medicine Hat", "Question", "Blind Hope", "Flow"

Son Volt Okemah and the Melody of Riot LP cover

Okemah and the Melody of Riot

Release Year: 2005
My Rating: C+

Son Volt's original lineup broke up, Jay made some solo records, and then returned with a new Son Volt lineup 7 years later. This one has some good moments, and moves the sound forward a bit, but it ain't my favorite.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Bandages and Scars", "Afterglow 61", "Chaos Streams"

Son Volt The Search LP cover

The Search

Release Year: 2007
My Rating: A+

Son Volt's fifth album is actually 22 songs and the length of a double-album. It is also criminally underrated, an absolutely epic road tripper that proves what an incredible songwriting talent Jay Farrar truly is. I'd argue that Trace is Farrar's Dark Side of the Moon, and The Search is his The Wall. Though, to be sure, Farrar doesn't really seem to care about the rock writeup accolades at this point. But The Search is a masterpiece to me, and at this point, I'd reach for it on a roadtrip before Trace. What makes a record magical, especially over others? I really don't know, but it's one of those things where you know it when you hear it. A certain amount of experimentalism that never gets in the way but brings a lot of different styles to this...

HIGHLIGHTS: "The Picture", "Highways and Cigarettes", "L Train", "Exurbia", "Adrenaline & Heresy", "Action"

Son Volt American Central Dust LP cover

American Central Dust

Release Year: 2009
My Rating: B+

Dust, as in Dustbowl. That's the word. This is a lovely, low-key record, dwelling on the border between heartland and wasteland. No big rock moments, but plenty of well-written and well-performed tunes. And a special salute to "Sultana", which is quite the US history lesson.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Dynamite", "Cocaine and Ashes", "Sultana", "Jukebox of Steel"

Son Volt Honky Tonk LP cover

Honky Tonk

Release Year: 2013
My Rating: A-

While ACD was a pretty subdued collection, Honky Tonk one has a little more of a heartland rock feel to it. Nothing experimental about it, but it's a definite change in Son Volt sound, an expansion. And Honky Tonk is the right term, very Country/Western feel to this, a little more opimistic, at least in timbre. A very nice sounding record, with some great melodies, a wide open feel. Not quite a classic, but one of Farrar's best efforts, one that grows on you with each listen.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Hearts and Minds", "Wild Side", "Down the Highway", "Angel of the Blues", "Seawall"

Son Volt Notes of Blue LP cover

Notes of Blue

Release Year: 2017
My Rating: B

8 albums and 20+ years in to the Son Volt thing, Jay Farrar is simply in the flow. His songs seem effortless, meditative, unconcerned with flash or celebrity or critical appreciation. This one starts off strong and sort of trails off into a road rock trance.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Promise The World", "Back Against The Wall", "Lost Souls"

Son Volt Union LP cover


Release Year: 2019
My Rating: C+

Buncha songs about the good ol' USA. Puts the MID in Middle America for me, just not a whole lotta melodic highlights.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Rebel Girl"

Son Volt Electro Melodier LP cover

Electro Melodier

Release Year: 2021
My Rating: TBD

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other major releases intro

Miscellaneous Tracks

  • "Looking at the World Through A Windshield": words


  • Uncle Tupelo: 
  • Wilco: Ancient history? It’s complicated?
  • Jay Farrar: His solo material is highly underrated and deserves its own writeup (coming soon). Terroir Blues, in particular, is a masterpiece of experimental folk.
  • New Multitudes: Farrar was Bragg’s first choice for the Mermaid Avenue work, so it’s only fitting that he undertook something similar years later. I’ll get around to this one at some point.

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Here’s my totally scientific method for grading albums. I’m sure you’ll find it revolutionary:

  • A+: CLASSIC album – I revere this bad boy.
  • A: GREAT album – a repeat listener from start to finish.
  • B: GOOD album – I’ll probably listen again at some point.
  • C: MEH album – not awful, but I have no desire to listen again.
  • D: BAD album – not sure why anyone would listen to this.
  • F: TRULY AWFUL album – monumentally bad and offense against music.

Gradations between letters (A-/B+/B-/C+) simply indicate it’s somwhere between the two letters.