“On Wilco, Son Volt and the Need for an Enemy”

There’s that old line… it must be in the outtakes on the Pulp Fiction DVD, but it asks, Are you a Beatles guy or an Elvis guy? Reading this Wilco: Learning How to Die book by Greg Kot, while I don’t dismiss the validity of the aforementioned question, I get the sense of an even more distinct dichotomy between Son Volt and Wilco.
Kot’s biography dwells obsessively on the early days of Jeff Tweedy’s music career, which in fact weren’t Wilco at all but rather Uncle Tupelo, a band he shared with childhood (Edwardsville, IL) friend and eventual Son Volt singer Jay Farrar. Personally, while I’ve seen Wilco in concert, purchased or burned probably seven different albums of theirs on CD and included “Heavy Metal Drummer” in the Top 30 on Dolby Radio, I’ve never been overly interested in Uncle Tupelo. What I gain from listening to their music is that there must have been an overwhelming thirst for this sort of STYLE — an alternative country, so to speak, as probably a spliced technique for both undergirding the obnoxious mainstream country like Billy Ray Cyrus, and simply propagating any brand of “alternative rock” which didn’t immediately induce ear drum bleeding. And as we hear with the eventual sonic cornucopia that is “Heavy Metal Drummer” [we learn of Jay Bennett he “never met an instrument or musical gadget he couldn’t tame” (Kot 94)], and most of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the exact zeitgeist Wilco would eventually come to cater to was anything but “country.”
But anyway, Kot recommences elevating Jay Farrar to an entirely deific stature, although to be fair, he’s not without outside support in this. Band bassist John Stirratt is similarly entranced: “‘(Uncle Tupelo’s) Trace came out, and it was eye-opening. Just classic Farrar songs. It was definitely daunting, and I felt we had something to prove after that’” (Kot 97).
Now, it’s possible that the value these biographer and scenester types see in this nascent Farrar material lies in its ability to perfect a STYLE — that is, the actual physical components of a brand of music, steel guitar, gentle, shuffling drums, a country twang in the vocal. Another notable thing is marked lack of climax, or romantic and social ambition, in most of the lyrics. In fact, that’s what I’m suggesting here, because, I don’t feel that the music appeals on a gut level, the way something like Hootie & the Blowfish did with its millions of concertgoing stoner fans, something culturally obsessed critics would have described as so “poppy.”
But here: let’s fast forward to Jay Farrar’s solo material, “All of Your Might,” materializing around 2003. All of a sudden there IS an anthemic quality to the music, a memorable quality, one that will you get you later on humming and nostalgiaizing about the song… and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it comes out AFTER Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, especially in light of the incredible rivalry that spawned from Farrar kicking Tweedy out of Uncle Tupelo.

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