After Uncle Tupelo broke up, founding member Jay Farrar began searching for members to form a band of his own. He started by reaching out to Jim Boquist, a multi-instrumentalist who had performed with Joe Henry as the opening act on Uncle Tupelo’s last tour. Boquist, in turn, recruited his brother Dave. Farrar then convinced former Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn to come out of retirement and join the group.
The band was called Son Volt. They began rehearsing in the Minneapolis area in the fall of 1994. While half of the band was rooted in the Minneapolis area, Farrar and Heidorn lived in the St. Louis area, so the group used both cities as bases for its operations during the first couple of years.
Based on Farrar’s reputation and a couple of demos, Warner Brothers signed the band and they began recording their debut album in November.
Son Volt performed its first concert at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis on June 16, 1995.
In September, Son Volt’s debut album titled Trace was released. The album reached #166 on the Billboard 200 album chart and received extremely favorable reviews. One critics said,”Throughout Son Volt’s debut, the group reworks classic honky tonk and rock & roll, adding a desperate, determined edge to their performances. Even when they rock out, there is a palpable sense of melancholy to Farrar’s voice, which lends a poignancy to the music.” The album topped many “best-of” lists in 1995 including the top 10 of Rolling Stone’s critics’ list.
It contained the single “Drown” which was a minor college and rock radio hit charted at #10 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and #25 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
After touring to promote the record, Son Volt went back to work on its next album in 1996. Sessions alternated between Echo Park in Bloomington, Indiana and Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota. Unlike his old partner Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco, Farrar was not interested in exploring new territory. Two years of traveling and playing together had made the band an even more complimentary ensemble to Farrar’s trademark vocals. Playing with more certainty and trust, Farrar wanted to refine what he’d started with Trace.
The new record was titled Straightaways and it was released in April of 1997. Critical reviews were mixed to say the least. While Straightaways mined stylistic territory similar to Trace, it wasn’t as dynamic or engaging and not as celebrated by the press. One wrote “whereas former Uncle Tupelo partner Jeff Tweedy and his new band Wilco used its sophomore release to explore new territory, Son Volt leader and songwriter Jay Farrar keeps his band mining the same country-folk vein that Uncle Tupelo quarried.”
Another said “Son Volt’s new album withdraws into mostly dreary, samey mid-tempo fare which is too bad for fans who’ve come to expect something a bit more dynamic from Uncle Tupelo’s gifted offspring”.
Yet another summed things up painfully well. Straightaways is marred by mushy arrangements and Farrar’s tendency not to vary his cracked, wounded vocal style” they said. “Too often, the record is just a slogging bore.”
Son Volt’s first two albums were both very restrained and sparse works underlain with languidness. These albums hinted, in their best moments, at Son Volt’s potential to both write beautiful songs and rock out. But the band never seemed to completely let loose and turn it up to 11. Part of that stemmed from their eclectic mix of musical influences. While the mixture of styles ranging from country to bar-band rock & roll had been the key to Son Volt’s sound, it was also a problem for those who criticized them for not knowing what sort of band they wanted to be.
1998’s Wide Swing Tremolo was a noticeably harder-rocking affair. It represented an attempt to somewhat break the mold of the earlier releases especially from the intensely sparse Straightaways It was a wide-open, rocking album with precious little of the overt country influences found on previous Son Volt works. Instead, this album was driven by REM-like arpeggio guitar riffs and muscular, warm rhythms. It was a strong album. However the erosion of critical support for the group continued.
After touring behind Wide Swing Tremolo, Son Volt went on hiatus in 1999, though they refused to call it a breakup. Farrar debuted as a solo artist with the 2001 album Sebastopol. He collaborated with keyboardist Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips and Mark Spencer of the Blood Oranges. Spencer would later become a full-time member of Son Volt. This album was followed the next year by an EP of outtakes from the Sebastopol sessions titled ThirdShiftGrottoSlack.
It was at this time that Farrar branched out into soundtrack work with his score for the independent film The Slaughter Rule. It was released in 2003 on Bloodshot Records. The same year he also released his second solo album Terrior Blues.
In 2004, Farrar put out a six-song live acoustic EP that teased a live DVD/CD release later in the year called Stone, Steel & Bright Lights.
By 2005, it was looking like Jay Farrar was finished with Son Volt. Lending credence to this theory was a Son Volt compilation that Rhino Records issued titled Retrospective: 1995-2000. Many people thought that the group had called it a day.
But Son Volt wasn’t over. Farrar revived the nameplate in July of 2005 with a new edition of the group. He was joined by drummer Dave Bryson, bassist Andrew Duplantis, and ex-Backsliders guitarist Brad Rice. A few months later they released the album Okemah and The Melody of Riot. It was recorded in St. Louis and released by the Sony imprint Legacy Recordings. Trouser Press gave the record a very favorable review calling it “a stunning return to form”.
Ever restless, Farrar announced the formation of another new band called Gob Iron with Varnaline’s Anders Parker in 2006. The name came from a British slang term for a harmonica. The duo originally recorded during a five day period in fall of 2004 with the intention that the songs would be a new Son Volt album. But that project was postponed as Farrar and Parker formed the new band. They released an album titled Death Songs For The Living in 2006. Critics described the release as Farrar’s best effort since Trace.
Two years later, Son Volt returned with The Search. It was an album that many critics hailed as “a modern, mature recording that might be the group’s best yet”. Billboard called it “Son Volt 2.0”. An iTunes version of the album featured all 22 tracks from the recording sessions.
Farrar collaborated with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie on the soundtrack for the 2009 documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone. It was about Jack Kerouac’s time spent at Big Sur.
That same year, Son Volt put out American Central Dust. The record was the group’s first release for the venerable roots music label Rounder Records. It also marked the debut of a new Son Volt lineup, with Farrar and the previous rhythm section of Duplantis and Bryson joined by Chris Masterson on guitar and Mark Spencer on steel guitar and keyboards. The New York Times said “it was a clear throw-back, but the starkly countrified vibe underscores the plaintive cast of Mr. Farrar’s lyrics”.
In 2012, Jay Farrar teamed up with Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Anders Parker and Will Johnson to write new music to accompany a set of incomplete Woody Guthrie lyrics similar to Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue. The album was titled New Multitudes and critics praised the recording as “the greatest compliment to Woody Guthrie and the collaborative spirit he greatly embodied”.
If the previous Son Volt album was considered a throw-back, 2013’s Honky Tonk, was a full-on homage to the classic Bakersfield country sound. It was a true Americana record full of pedal steel guitars and twin fiddles. Although the music sounded like it came from decades earlier, Farrar’s voice and singing style was the perfect match. This recording was full of the kind of music Jay Farrar was born to sing.
In 2015, Rhino Records marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Trace with an expanded and remastered edition of the album, including Farrar’s original songwriting demos for the album and a concert recorded at The Bottom Line in New York City during February of 1996. Farrar supported the re-release with a solo tour in which he performed the entire Trace album.
Farrar reconvened Son Volt in 2016 to record a new album inspired by the spirit of the blues. Notes of Blue, which was released in February 2017, used the unique and haunting tunings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James and Nick Drake as a point of departure. The album reflected the blues as it resides in the folk tradition but with heavy amplification. Notes of Blue also saw more personnel changes for Son Volt, featuring Farrar, Spencer (this time on bass, side guitar, and piano), fiddler Gary Hunt, pedal steel player Jason Kardong, and drummer Jacob Edwards.
Currently, Farrar and Son Volt are touring the Southeastern US including three night stands at Homegrown On The River in Arkansas and the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival in Tennessee.