When Wilco Became Misunderstood
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.