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Son Volt

Honky Tonk – 2013 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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Jay Farrar and his band Son Volt likely never set out to reinvent country music, but after rising from the ashes of the renegade roots outfit Uncle Tupelo, it was inevitable that they'd put a modern spin on the traditional sounds they were attempting to emulate. Yet, while former band mate Jeff Tweedy took his spin-off, Wilco, into wholly unlikely and strangely twisted directions, Farrar and company more or less kept their eye on the heartland and crafted songs more becoming of their Americana origins. The band's extended hiatus in the late '90s, accompanied by Farrar's indulgence in a solo career, suggested that Son Volt had milked those realms as much as possible, but their rebound, marked by a string of successful albums - most notably 2009's "American Central Dust" - suggested the initial inspiration was worth revisiting.

"Honky Tonk," then, indicates that far and away the return to their roots has been wholly embraced. While describing it as solely focused on the genre the title suggests, may be a misnomer, it's also clear that the influence is front and center throughout. After all, you don't name a song Bakersfield and not do it due diligence. But like other outfits before them, The Byrds and Burrito Brothers in particular, Son Volt show combine their reverence with an individual stance, stripping "Honky Tonk" of any suspicion it's merely a retrospective rehash.

The songs are heartfelt and genuine, from the initial fiddle-fueled sashay that accompanies Hearts And Minds through the aching pedal steel-infused longing and lament implied in songs like Wild Side, Angel of the Blues and Down The Highway. Likewise, the sorrow and suffering Farrar sings of in Brick Walls and Tears of Change indicate he knows something of what he croons.

There's a certain savvy that comes with offering homage to a specific genre without falling prey to any sort of limitations it may imply. With "Honky Tonk." Son Volt has affirmed the fact that they reign at the top of the alt.-country pantheon and aren't about to be displaced. This is one for the ages.