Thursday, October 23, 2008

Week 21: "Bandages & Scars" by Son Volt

The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head...
In 1987 in Belleville, a small town in southwestern Illinois on the outskirts of St. Louis, a band formed that would alter the course of music history. The band called themselves Uncle Tupelo and though its members were passionate fans of punk, they could only find steady gigs playing country music.

Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were the leading creative collaborators in the band. In a seven year span they released four albums and gave birth to a brand new musical genre known as “alternative country.” Although music critics disagree about how to classify this genre, I use the functional definition that alt. country is Americana music created to appeal to alternative rock fans. This is one of my favorite musical genres and I even once sang an Uncle Tupelo song, the title track to their album No Depression, during a worship service.

In 1994 the band broke up due to personal differences between Farrar and Tweedy. Jeff Tweedy, along with John Stirrat, went on to form Wilco. Farrar joined forces with former Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn to form Son Volt. Wilco took a more experimental creative journey while Son Volt stayed closer to formula used by Uncle Tupelo.

The band Son Volt has released five albums. (I own all but one of them.) In quick succession, they released three albums in the late 90s before being dropped by their record label. They came back in 2005 with the release of the album Okemah and the Melody of Riot which they then followed up with a fifth album.

“Bandages & Scars” is the first song off Okemah. The song is an overture to the musical and political legacy of Woody Guthrie. (Guthrie was born in the town of Okemah, Oklahoma. He often performed with a guitar emblazoned with the words “This machine kills fascists.” When Son Volt toured to support their album, they used a backdrop depicting a guitar with the same words on it.)

“Bandages & Scars” begins with lyrics evoking the dust bowl, “Can’t drink holy water / Can’t find it in the well.” It then modernizes these concerns by putting these lines in parallel with a 21st century environmental consciousness and talking about the ozone layer and lead poisoning. In the second verse, Farrar’s lyrics capture the radical, systemic change Guthrie called for in his music. “Piecemeal solutions with only leave scars / bandages for nosebleeds…”

As great as the verses are, the simple, one-line chorus is what causes me to shiver when I hear this song. It is a simple line, “The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head.”

Take a listen to Son Volt performing “Bandages & Scars” live and see if you agree with me.