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Son Volt rises out of Uncle Tupelo's ashes

By Joel Bernstein, May 1997

Lots of magazines these days are wondering where to draw the line between country and rock. It's mostly the mainstream country magazines worried that too much of this "Hot New Country" stuff isn't really country at all.

But there's another side to the same question. There are currently a bunch of bands - such as The Bottle Rockets, Wilco, and Son Volt who are getting a lot of play on rock radio with music that is often at least as country as what's on country radio. Some might even argue that it's more country.

It seems we've reached a point where what's on the radio is all about which city you're marketed out of - Nashville or New York - rather than on what anything sounds like.Son Volt has been having great success on rock and modern rock stations. Some of the tracks on their debut Warner Brothers album "Trace," using fiddles and other traditional country instruments, are pretty hard to classify as rock.

Son Volt's bassist, Jim Boquist, like his bandmates, is not particularly loquacious. But he gets very passionate when talking about music. And he's not very happy with this obsession with labelling music, an obsession he says is created and fueled by the media.

"It's the last thing musicians really care about," he said from his Minneapolis home. "The only people who really care are writers. We're content with all sorts of different kinds of music. (Our music) is an amalgamation of a lot of different things."

Boquist believes the old adage that kids don't hate (country music) naturally. They have to be taught.

Commenting on the irony that many who claim to dislike country music are enjoying Son Volt and their ilk, he says, "A lot of that (labels) comes from what they've heard or been told. If someone comes to hear of a band without a classification, they'd just like it. Garth Brooks to them is country. They don't even know that Flatt & Scruggs is also country. "

The country music the band enjoys includes a lot of older country. "Everybody in the band has a pretty good appreciation for all sorts of music. At different times of the day we may be drawn to different kinds. I've always loved Merle Haggard, and I always will. But I like harder electric music as well."

Asked about current mainstream country, Boquist says, "I haven't heard a lot of it. Some of it sounds somewhat sanitized. I think Nashville saw dollar signs and went into the laboratory and came out with a formula. That's what I'm hearing in a lot of the newer material."

"There are exceptions, of course. Steve Earle is doing the best work he's ever done. He's great. He's labelled as country. Dwight Yoakam does basic rock 'n' roll as well as anybody who's called rock 'n' roll."

Son Volt is a spinoff of a band called Uncle Tupelo, which made similar music to somewhat less mainstream acceptance. Jay Farrar, lead singer and primary songwriter from Son Volt, came from that band as did drummer Mike Heidorn. They had performed with Jim Boquist, and that led also to bringing in Jim's brother Dave. Dave gives the band much of its traditional country sound, playing banjo, fiddle and lap steel in addition to guitar.

Farrar, as the prime songwriter, is the key figure in Son Volt. "We have a lot of input," says Boquist. "Everybody guides the band. But it does come down to the writer of the songs for a lot of the direction." He adds, "We all change in the course of what we do, especially when we're working with different people."

Jeff Tweedy, the other leader of Uncle Tupelo, formed his own band Wilco. It has been said that the band's split was not as sweet as tupelo honey. Boquist claims that to be greatly exaggerated. "I never knew it to be acrimonious. I was on tour with them at the end. People print stuff and write stuff that's not documented, and it becomes accepted fact. Not even a week ago I was at a wedding with two guys from Wilco. They're all friends, and there's a lot of respect and appreciation between the bands."

Tweedy, however, indicated during a recent Boston stop he harbored negative feelings about the break-up of Uncle Tupelo, wondering why Farrar just picked up and left.

The suggestion that there would be a natural rivalry between the two bands also gets Boquist's dander up. "No rivalry. That's a lot of bunk. We're not going at it in a sophomoric competitive way. That's bullshit. "

Realizing that he may have gotten a bit over-emotional, Boquist adds, "It's not bullshit that you asked the question. But that kind of behavior would be for people who haven't grown up." But, he adds, "our audiences are really aware of the Jay-Jeff split and what happened to Uncle Tupelo."

One established country artist that the band has worked with is Kelly Willis. People putting together a benefit package called "Red Hot and Bothered" came up with the idea of a duets between Willis and Farrar (with the rest of Son Volt backing).

"We recorded with her last year in New Orleans, a Townes Van Zandt song called 'Rex's Blues,'"said Boquist. "We got along. She's a dear person and a fine singer. She's got an amazing voice. We got along at some level beyond the music. We recorded three songs with her in Minnesota in January."

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