Last September, all systems seemed go for a reunion of Son Volt, the acclaimed roots-rock band fronted by Jay Farrar.
Farrar and his original bandmates-guitarist Dave Boquist, bassist Jim Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn (who, along with Farrar and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, had also been an original member of Uncle Tupelo)-had reconvened to record the song "Sometimes" for Por Vida, a tribute album for Alejandro Escovedo.
The sessions went so well that Farrar announced Son Volt would return to the studio for the first time in seven years.
Just before the November recording sessions, however, the Boquist brothers set down some new demands that Farrar couldn't live with. So he called off the reunion and replaced his old mates with new ones.
"It was a hugely devastating situation for me," Farrar says from his home in St. Louis. "I mean, I felt like I had been working hard for a month and a half to make it happen, and then to have it kind of be sprung on me like a surprise... it was devastating. I think it's probably ultimately reflective of how as people we'd all... changed over the last four years or so that I had been doing [solo] records. I guess the whole dynamic of the band had changed and people had developed different priorities, I think."
The new Son Volt included drummer Dave Bryson (who, as a member of Canyon, had played on Farrar's 2004 live CD, Stone, Steel & Bright Lights), bassist Andrew Duplantis (who opened some shows for Son Volt in 1997) and guitarist Brad Rice, who'd played with Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt and the Backsliders.
Together, those four made the album that was originally going to feature the original lineup. And they used the Son Volt name.
Called Okehmah and the Melody of Riot, Farrar's songwriting and grainy vocals leading the way, it will sound instantly familiar to fans of the first three Son Volt albums. Okemah (named after the Oklahoma town where Woody Guthrie was born) has a typical mix for Son Volt: assertive rockers (including "Jet Pilot" and "Endless War," both anti-war anthems) and austere ballads ("Atmosphere" and "Medication"). Stylistic parallels noted, Farrar said the new lineup quickly developed its own character.
"Everyone sort of brings their own personal musical backgrounds as well as their own personal life experiences to the whole project, and I think that is revealed in the music," Farrar says.
That element of surprise and discovery was something that Farrar didn't feel with Son Volt when he opted to put the band on hold following the Wide Swing Tremelo tour.
"I think I just sort of felt like with the original incarnation of Son Volt we'd hit a wall," he says. "I didn't want to necessarily be the person who had to crack the whip to try to push people in a certain direction that they didn't want to go."
Farrar went on to release three solo CDs-Sebastopol (2001), Terroir Blues (2003) and Stone, Steel & Bright Lights-on which he tried out different textures and styles, mostly acoustic-based. Jonesing to return to a plugged-in sound, Farrar knew that meant a return to Son Volt. He might not have gotten the reunion he intended, but he seems satisfied with the way things turned out.
"I'm glad we were able to do that [tribute] for Alejandro," Farrar says. "That's sort of a last positive effort that we all contributed to. I think it was just a good way to go out."
Son Volt plays at the Belly Up, 8 p.m. on Sept. 12. 858-481-8140.