A Few Words on Trace
Back in the autumn of 1995, I was living in St. Louis and working at The Riverfront Times.
It was a strange time for me. I was in a deep funk -- and virtually stalled -- as a creative writer. Already I felt myself going in circles professionally, but it would be another three years (and then yet another brief stay in St. Louis) before I did anything about it.
But my deep friendships in St. Louis and strong attachment to music -- and especially the bands that I'd helped bring to light in my early years in the city -- provided a measure of meaning and joy in what I look back on now as some "lost years." Or years where I lost the thread.
One of the most deeply satisfying feelings in that era was watching bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Bottle Rockets march into the mainstream of American music. To see the bands you championed very publicly early in their careers suddenly blossom and become everyone's bands instills a certain amount of pride in the rock critic. It's nice, I discovered, to be right.
The breakup of Uncle Tupelo in early 1994 -- and the drawn-out final tour that ended with two gigs at Mississippi Nights on April 30 and May 1 -- hit almost everyone in the small circle who'd followed the band from the beginning hard. We all knew there'd been tensions (and the departure of Mike Heidorn didn't help), but there was a consensus that Anodyne was a triumphant record that might provide the glue of success to keep things together.
What Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would do next was a local obsession in the year after the break-up. More signals came from Camp Tweedy, especially since he kept the touring version of Uncle Tupelo together as Wilco and recruited the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman to play on that band's first record, A.M.
There was a deep stillness on the Farrar front, except for bringing Heidorn back into his orbit and recruiting two stellar Minneapolis-based musicians (and siblings) -- Dave and Jim Boquist -- into his band: Son Volt. There was also an air of mystery. What was Jay up to?
I wrote about music every once in a while for The Riverfront Times, but I had largely switched to politics and media by then. But I was -- when the occasion arose -- called upon to continue my journey with the bands. I remember very clearly getting my copy of Trace from Warner Brothers and hearing "Windfall" pour out of my boom box. It pretty much didn't come off the CD player for weeks.
Trace was a revelation. It turns out that Jay had been traversing the Misssissippi River -- living in New Orleans, never losing touch with St. Louis, and recording in Minnesota. The record is a deeply-felt love song to the river, and its music -- sprinkled with dazzling wordplay and shifting aural dynamics that still surprise and astound the listener with their ingenuity.
I think my review of Trace was among the first. And though the record may not have risen entirely into the pantheon of greats that I cited at the end of the review, I don't think I was wrong in seeing it as a landmark of sorts. Trace certainly is the high water mark of that first wave of alternative country -- with a generosity of spirit, exquisite craftsmanship, and relaxed profundity that has yet to be excelled in the genre.
Twenty years on, Trace has just received a well-deserved re-release on Rhino Records -- including a dazzling live recording of Son Volt at The Bottom Line in New York from 1996 that is a reminder of what a powerful yet subtle live band they were at that moment.
It's my hope that the re-release of Trace will also spur a serious reassessment of Jay Farrar's entire body of work with Son Volt and as a solo artist. It's an impressive track record of fidelity to his ideals, his exemplary songwriting and musicianship, and his ferocious unwillingness to bend to fads and fashion.
There is also a case to be made that Trace might have been one of the best things that ever happened to Jeff Tweedy.
To my mind, Wilco's A.M. remains a wildly underrated record with songs that rank among Tweedy's best ("Passenger Side, "Casino Queen," "Box Full of Letters"). But Trace not only threw down a gauntlet to the other songwriting member of Uncle Tupelo, it also seems to have pushed Tweedy into a much different -- and more rollicking and experimental -- place.
The gambling bravado of the record Tweedy and company released a year later as Being There -- and its audacious swoops of style and tone -- was the pushback of an artist who needed to carve his own path and defy expectations. The gamble paid off in the long run, and helped steer Tweedy to the place where he has blossomed in Wilco and as a solo artist.
One of the things I noticed two years ago when I wrote the liner notes to Uncle Tupleo's No Depression was that despite the bad blood of the band's breakup, both Farrar and Tweedy were stubborn idealists in that band -- a trait that has remained with both of thejm in subsequent years. It's a share quality what makes them great.
The re-release of Trace is an excellent moment to reflect on that.