By Kelly Dearmore
In between the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo in May 1994 and the release of October 1996's Being There, things were much different for Wilco and its cousin group that also splintered from that Uncle, Son Volt. For that brief period, the two bands' critical and commercial roles were practically the polar opposite of what they've been for the past quarter century.
In the wake of the breakup, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt with the founding Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, while Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco with the remainder of the active Tupelo lineup. Although the latter was first out of the gate with A.M. in March of '95, it was the September arrival of Son Volt's killer debut LP, Trace, that seemed to signal which former Tupelo singer was on a more promising career path.
Not only did Trace easily outsell A.M. as the 90's rolled on, but the press also enthusiastically gathered on Farrar's side. Brian Henneman, an Uncle Tupelo guitar tech who constributed to A.M., was interviewed by Greg Kot for the excellent 2004 book, Wilco: Learning How to Die. Henneman, who not fronts the country-rock greats Bottle Rockets, recaled the troubled vibes in the Wilco camp as praise rolled in for Trace. He also acknowledged the unavoidable competition between the bands.
"The first Son Volt record was pretty fucking good," he gushed. "It was like watching a prize fight at that point. Wow! He slammed him there! Ouch! What a counterpunch! It was exciting being on the sidelines watching these guys. It's like Jay had something to prove with that first album, an urgency to it that none of his albums since have had."
Many critics agreed with Henneman. Entertainment Weekly gave Trace an A grade, writing "Son Volt turns heartland rust into gold." It's not as though A.M. was widely panned, but reviews of it were decidedly more mixed. Adding insult to injury, Trace had a rock radio hit in "Drown," while the Wilco single "Box Full of Letters," went largely unnoticed by radio - AM and FM.
Oddly enough, the release of Being There actually seemed to incite the negative sentiments that A.M. has dubiously lived with for decades now. Noting the confidence, growth and ambition of the double album Being There, certain outlets took shots at the new record's predecessor. For instance, in its original review of Wilco's sophomore effort, Pitchfork wrote that the debut “was downright bad any way you look at it.” While describing Being There as “almost entirely wonderful” in its review, NME also stated that A.M. “seemed diluted.”
For good reason, Being There has continued to enjoy a sterling reputation as the start of Wilco as we now know it. With experimental touches, swings of mood and psychedelic flourishes, it is impossible to view the polished Being There as a rushed collection of Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo outtakes, as can somewhat fairly be the case with A.M.
In a 1997 Rolling Stone interview, bassist John Stirrat said the band discussed “wanting to throw-off the No Depression thing,” when it came time to work on Wilco’s second effort. Simply expanding a bit beyond Tweedy’s punk-charged Tupelo turns wasn’t and end goal, but merely a starting point.
Being There’s opening track, “Misunderstood,” has become perhaps Wilco’s signature creation. A slow simmering stunner that ethereally meanders before finally paying off with a cathartic conclusion. Eschewing traditional song structure, Tweedy’s vocals are lent a ghostly production as he oscillates from what is almost a spoken-word delivery and pained, strained screeches. It’s a bracing slice of psych-tinged stoner-rock and, true to the group’s mission, positioned the entire record as far from the whiskey-soaked alt-country terrain they had become both mired and uninterested in.
To be clear, Being There isn’t some sort of safe space, free of any and all twang. The second song on the album is the gently strummed, waltz-worthy “Far, Far Away,” but with gleaming production and a pedal steel that wafts rather than cries, not only are the ghosts of Uncle Tupelo absent, but the shackles of A.M. seem to be well removed after only the first two songs of the epic, 19-track double LP.
Son Volt could’ve offered a second record every bit as critically and commercially successful as Trace, and it likely wouldn’t have tilted the tide back to him. Released in the spring of ’97, Son Volt’s Straightaways landed with a thud in every way imaginable. Sounding more like a collection of tunes that didn’t make the cut on Trace, that lack of progression was amplified when compared to Wilco’s bold forward strokes.
Son Volt rushed back with ‘98s Wide Swing Tremolo, a more varied record than Straightaways which welcomed warmer reviews from critics, before Farrar announced a hiatus from the band. Following some solo-efforts, Farrar reignited the Son Volt name in 2005 and has produced a number of rock-solid Americana records including 2017’s Notes of Blue and 2019’s Union.
The market for Son Volt records and concerts is loyal, though tiny compared to brand Wilco has fostered. Certainly, music is not a competition, but few notable artistic rivalries have been as ready-made for prime-time drama as the intertwined histories of Wilco and Son Volt have been. Looking back now, however, there’s very little to be misunderstood when it comes to pinpointing the moment in which Wilco surged out from under the Uncle Tupelo cloak in order to seek something all its own.
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Kelly Dearmore is a music writer based in Dallas. He has written for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Press and Lone Star Music.