In 1993, alt.country pioneers Uncle Tupelo unceremoniously broke up. Not surprising, really; always a contentious group, Jay Farrar had finally tired of Jeff Tweedy, and the animosity would last for years. Their split was a shame, as their major label debut album, Anodyne, was well-received, and was their strongest record to date. It seemed realistic that the band would soon take things to the next level. Uncle Tupelo’s members quickly reformed as Wilco, whilst Farrar’s future plans were uncertain. Surprisingly, the safe money for post-breakup success wasn’t on Jeff. His songs, generally considered a bit more traditional rock, didn’t quite have the magic that Farrar’s did, nor did he possess as distinctive,and intriguing a singing voice.
Farrar’s next project, Son Volt, initially proved the hypothesis was correct. Hiring former Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn and brothers Jim and Dave Bosquit, the band quickly recorded their debut album and set about playing live. When Trace was released in 1995, it was felt that this record was the logical follow-up to Anodyne. The album was critically acclaimed, and even spawned a radio hit with the song “Drown.” It quickly became clear that after the split Tweedy may have taken the Uncle Tupelo band, Farrar had taken its soul. Trace would outperform AM, for one very basic reason: it was the better record.
From the opening notes of “Windfall,” it was soon apparent that Farrar had lost no ground in the two years. That song, an upbeat country-rock number that leans more towards the country side of things, with gently strummed guitar, fiddle, banjo and that voice, one that comes from the soil and the earth and the history of it all, one that lets you know that Farrar’s body may be young, but he is a very old soul, indeed. He’s invented a new, fresh sound one that “Sounds like 1963 but for now”—and that’s only the first song! Trace doesn’t disappoint, either; every song that follows is equally as good, utilizing everything from hundred dollar guitars (“Catching On), the motto of New Hampshire (“Live Free”), Ron Wood (“Mystifies Me”) and the spirit of Townes van Zandt (“Loose String,” an oddly poignant elegy for a man who would die two years later), amongst other things. These eleven songs pass quickly, but they leave you with an urgent desire to listen to them again—and again—and again.
This twentieth anniversary deluxe edition of Trace offers up three different versions of the album—the original album, the demos that were created before the album’s recording, and a live performance from a year later. It’s an interesting method of watching the songs come to life. The demo versions are largely stripped-down and acoustic, occasionally with less than stellar fidelity, but it’s evident on “Live Free,” “Windfall,” and “Loose String” that these songs were going to be amazing no matter what arrangement Farrar would give them. By the time they’ve toured for a year, the live show featured here—capturing the band in San Francisco at The Bottom Line—it’s clear that Son Volt had become a crack live band, and these versions are taut and powerful in a way that the album versions—spectacular as they are—only hinted at. The handful of Uncle Tupelo songs show that Farrar hadn’t completely turned his back on the past. Furthermore, the Anodyne numbers “Chickamauga” and “Fifteen Keys” add credence to the theory that Trace was the band truly carrying the Uncle Tupelo banner.
As successful as this initial salvo was, it would prove to be the band’s high point. They would release two more albums, each as good as the one before it, but times were changing, and the band came to an end in 1998. The band has since reformed and toured, and though not a full-time band, it’s not been shit-canned, either. Truthfully, though, Farrar was never the kind of artist to make it as a mainstream act—he was too good, too original, too unique to go that route. Plus, I’m not sure he really wanted that, anyway—he’s an artist, and Trace is a magnificent work of art, one that has stood the test of time, and if you weren’t sure of it before, this edition certainly and firmly proves that point.