When Uncle Tupelo called it quits way back in 1994, few could have predicted the career paths of the band's two major, alt-country gurus, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy.
Soon after the band's breakup, Tweedy started Wilco, and Farrar formed Son Volt. Both bands released stellar debut albums, with more than a few critics preferring Son Volt's Trace to Wilco's A.M.
But it wasn't long before Tweedy kicked things onto a whole new playing field with the release of Being There, leaving Farrar holding the bag as alt-country's reluctant standard-bearer. And, as such, today, Wilco is acknowledged as one of the heavyweights of the indie scene, selling out major venues and moving a respectable number of albums. Son Volt, on the other hand, has basically released its debut album under different titles over and over again—and with decidedly mixed results.
Trying to find out how and why this all went down the way it did is like trying to piece together a difficult puzzle by candlelight. Nearly every record label representative, promotions person and musician asked about Wilco vs. Son Volt had plenty to say to about the matter. Unfortunately, most of them would only speak about it on the condition of anonymity.
"Any speculation on Wilco vs. Son Volt would be from a fan standpoint," Cary Baker of the Los Angeles-based publicity company Conqueroo says. "Tweedy writes the perfect ratio of catchy songs to some enigmatic ones. Not everybody can strike that same chord with the audience—including Farrar, who's a plenty good alt-country rocker."
Baker was one of the few who would go on record, but most others shared his opinion. Some were a bit harsher in their views of Son Volt, actually. Anonymity helps on that front, of course.
"Farrar's stuff just got bland," says a local singer-songwriter who'd prefer to remain anonymous. "That's why Son Volt lost me. I recently heard the new Son Volt, and I am going to buy it but mainly out of nostalgia."
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Ironically, Farrar has been the one who stayed closest to Uncle Tupelo's original, highly regarded vision. And when he's diverted from that muse, as he has done on his solo recordings, Farrar ends up sounding out of his element. Some believe that, over the years, Tweedy has simply grown more as a person and that has resulted in better songs.
"As with his audience, Tweedy seems to be getting older and wiser," AEG Live promotions rep Scott Strong says. "Other bands are still trying to change the complete world instead of a piece they can control and, most of all, enjoy."
Of course, there are folks out there still holding on to their Uncle Tupelo memories.
"Wilco is too indie rock for me, and Farrar tends to be a bit monotone when one is listening to a whole project," an anonymous rep from a small record label based in Chicago says. "I will always be more of a fan of Uncle Tupelo... Farrar and Tweedy balanced each other out."