Oct 032019

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Son Volt

Uncle Tupelo was a seminal alt-country band whose debut album No Depression sparked the roots/Americana magazine by the same name. In the ashes of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s relationship’s volatile demise in 1995, Farrar formed Son Volt. Today Americana purists hail Son Volt as the torchbearer of Uncle Tupelo’s legacy. But the band appears to be singing subterranean blues compared to Wilco’s stratospheric success.

They’ve been grinding it out in bars and nightclubs for nearly twenty-five years and have built a loyal cult following. Farrar has worn his politics on his sleeve more than Tweedy. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his scathing critique of the Donald Trump presidency in their newest album Union, released earlier this summer.

But at its core, Son Volt is a band that celebrates good roots music, one which samples widely to find songs that inform and reflect their sound. In light of their newest release, here is a sampling of cover songs that Son Volt has performed live. Son Volt most frequently plays Uncle Tupelo and Jay Farrar covers, but since Farrar is the frontman for Son Volt, it isn’t much fair to count those. It would be like The Heartbreakers performing “I Won’t Back Down” off of Tom Petty’s solo album Full Moon Fever.

Son Volt – What Goes On (The Velvet Underground cover)

Son Volt chug along to this Velvet Underground classic in the same way as the original. They use the Hammond organ sound to fill in the spaces between downstrokes. However, whereas the Velvets’ continuation of garage rock into the end of the 1960s provided a framework for proto-punk, Son Volt are the benefactors. Their distortion is contrived, rather than the natural overdrive of 1969. Farrar and gang crunch through the chords like a grunge band. It’s a great cover. But it is like seeing the resemblances between yourself and a sepia-toned photo of an ancestor.

Son Volt – Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way (Waylon Jennings cover)

When Waylon Jennings wrote “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way,” it was a nod to the snobbishness of Nashville and the traditionalists within the C&W genre. Like their Outlaw forebears, Farrar and the rest of Uncle Tupelo found themselves on the margins of country music. So it’s fitting that Son Volt would play Jennings’s tune as an expression of gratitude. Played live, Son Volt’s version has a crispness that’s more Bakersfield than Austin.

Son Volt – Walls (Tom Petty cover)

Tom Petty’s 1996 single “Walls” has a somber tone to it. A different, slightly more upbeat version appeared on the She’s the One soundtrack. It sounds as if this is the version that Farrar and the gang found more appealing. As an ode to the late Petty, Son Volt relies even more heavily on jangly guitars and a 12-string guitar solo. I’d like to think that Tom was smiling down on them when they played it.

Son Volt – Happy (The Rolling Stones cover)

“Happy” from the Stones’ renaissance on Exile on Main St. was a return to form, with its swamp rock stomping and Keith on the slide. Son Volt’s rocking cover adds greater, earthy depth, and some of that punky angst that was Uncle Tupelo’s stock in trade. It’s a grungier take on the song that keeps you happy rather than seeing you descend into melancholy. The only thing missing is that rich horn section in the original.

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