Son Volt – Conducting electricity
The Hill is one of many small, culturally and religiously defined neighborhoods in St. Louis. Two miles west of downtown proper, the area is best known for its Italian cafes, markets and comfortable restaurants; its small brick homes adorned with plaster Virgins; and Berra Park, named for the baseball legend who grew up there.
The nameless studio where Jay Farrar and a reformed Son Volt recorded Okemah And The Melody Of Riot is as modest as that neighborhood. Located above a neon sign shop, the space is little bigger than a living room, with gritty carpets covering the floor, makeshift soundproofing on the walls, some adjacent storage for gear dating back to the Uncle Tupelo days, and a control room just big enough to hold a couch, a few chairs, a mixing board, some preamps, a tape machine and a portable refrigerator.
It seems strange that a rock ‘n’ roll record of such immediate warmth, vitality, and emotional and political conviction could have taken shape in such drab confines — but, against considerable odds, it did.
Every album tells a story, and every story has another behind it. Loss and disillusionment, anger and doubt, joy and freedom — the story of rock ‘n’ roll vibrates to those feelings the way a guitar vibrates to strings.
This is one version of one rock ‘n’ roll story.
In the summer of 2004, Son Volt resurfaced after a four-year hiatus. Together, the band — Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn, and brothers Jim and Dave Boquist — recorded Alejandro Escovedo’s song “Sometimes” for a tribute album to help raise funds for the ailing musician’s recovery. The decision to reunite the band for the session was Farrar’s; it seemed perfectly fitting, given that Escovedo had opened for Son Volt many times in the 1990s.
Farrar and the band were pleased with the results, and planned to capitalize on the momentum. “It was a good experience,” Farrar says. “We felt like anything could happen at that point, and we started working toward that.”
“Coming out of the Alejandro thing it was really cool,” recalls Heidorn, Son Volt’s drummer (and the original drummer for Farrar’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo). “It was great that Jay thought of us. I don’t know when the conversations about a new record started, but things were heading in that direction, and it was 99.9 percent certain.”
The devil, however, was in that missing percentage point.
“Lawyers were brought in ostensibly to make sure things were done correctly, that everyone’s interests were represented,” Farrar recalls. “Things were going well. There was a two and a half month process whereby people shot their proposals back and forth. At the end everything was agreed on and preproduction was started a few days after [plans for a new album] had been announced.”
But the original Son Volt never made it to The Hill. “Sometimes” — with its simple chorus “Sometimes, it hurts, sometimes inside” — will likely be the original lineup’s last sound.
“In retrospect, I’m glad we had that final experience together,” Farrar says. “It was a good way to go out.”
“All I can really say is that there’s music, business, the business of music, and then there’s the music business,” Heidorn tries to explain. “All four of those things played a part, just like with every other band in America.”
“They made it clear they had new demands that needed to be met before they would show up for preproduction,” Farrar says. “I found that to be very devastating. It was just me sitting in the studio waiting for them to show up, and just the fact that they weren’t willing to come by and talk about it. I suggested to everyone on the phone that we just start playing music, that we could work it out, find a solution. They didn’t want to do that. After a couple days of nothing happening, I felt like I had to move on. The idea of a reunion was appealing, and it was hard to let go.”
“Jay did what he had to do and should have done,” Heidorn says. “It falls under the category of that Led Zeppelin song, ‘Communication Breakdown’. I was mentally and physically prepared to record. But the four people just were not on the same page. And it was not gonna be right. I’ve read that Jay was devastated. And it was devastating for me too.
“I don’t know how friendship plays into it,” Heidorn continues. “When a professional ballplayer starts questioning business, the owners say it’s a game. When the player says it’s just a game, they say it’s a business. Jay has been a friend of mine for a long time, and I still consider him high on my friend list. I don’t get to see him all that much. We see each other at barbecues and stuff. I have no ill feelings.”