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That Son Volt's first album, Trace, makes excellent driving music has everything to do with the habits of the act's lead singer and guitarist, onetime Uncle Tupelo member Jay Farrar. "I did spend a lot of time driving from my home in New Orleans to Minneapolis," says Farrar, who made the 1,350-mile trek every weekend during the making of the disc in order to rehearse in bandmember Dave Boquist's Minnesota pad. "I guess I just didn't feel like moving."

Fortunately, this stubbornness paid healthy dividends. "Being on the road by yourself like I was can be a good thing," he explains. "When I'm on the road with a band, it's kind of hard to write--not because of the band, necessarily, but because of the nature of the situation. There's just not a lot of time to write songs. But during the period I was writing Trace, I had plenty of time."

The tunesmith's schedule opened up after leaving his longtime group. Uncle Tupelo (which evolved from the Primitives, an Eighties act that featured Farrar and Jeff Tweedy) received substantial acclaim for its four discs--1990's No Depression, 1991's Still Feel Gone, 1992's March 16-20, 1992 and 1993's Anodyne, its major-label debut. But after touring behind the last recording, Farrar shocked the outfit's following by packing his bags and leaving. "It just reached a point where it wasn't very much fun anymore," he notes. "The band had been together for six or seven years, the original drummer, Mike Heidorn, had already left prior to Anodyne, and it was just kind of...well, things changed."

Disagreements over the combo's direction were at the origin of this shift. Tweedy was pleased with Anodyne's approach, which was lighter and folkier than early Tupelo; as a result, Wilco, the alternative/country ensemble Tweedy formed after the divorce, took a similar tack with its inaugural release, A.M. Conversely, Farrar and the rest of Son Volt (bassist/ vocalist Jim Boquist, multi-instrumentalist--and brother of Jim--Dave Boquist, and drummer Heidorn) went the way of the earlier, harder Tupelo; the music is marked by louder guitars and a more somber tone.

While both Tweedy and Farrar quickly found an audience for their new outfits, Farrar concedes that their split was less than cordial. "I don't know what exactly it was that led to the breakup. It's kind of an all-encompassing thing," he allows. "I mean, our moms are friends, but we haven't communicated a lot." He has seen Wilco live and admits, "It's good, you know. But I don't see myself being a part of it."

Farrar doesn't want to seem bitter, however. He insists that Trace phrases such as "When in doubt, move on" were not inspired by Tweedy. "None of the songs are related to anything specific like that," he vows. "It just reflected the situation I was in that summer. I also had moved from St. Louis to New Orleans and had just come off the road with Uncle Tupelo."

It's appropriate, then, that Trace's lyrics are filled with references to aimless wandering, late-night radio, truck stops and the highways of the Midwest. These images are complemented by Son Volt's music, which might best be described as Nashville grunge: a blend of steel guitar, dobro, banjo and Farrar's weary voice, which conjures a sense of small-town angst.

The harder, more alternative slant of Trace was developed after Farrar and Heidorn sat down with the brothers Boquist, whom they'd met while touring with Uncle Tupelo. "Really, the only sort of clear-cut idea we had was to try a few songs with the pedal-steel guitar, which Eric Haywood [on tour with the band] played on the record," Farrar recalls.

The style that emerged is somewhat familiar, Farrar acknowledges. "Part of what might make Son Volt seem like old Uncle Tupelo is the fact that Mike is playing drums. He was a really integral part of Tupelo's earlier sound." But, he goes on, the rootsy touch provided by Dave Boquist shares little in common with Tupelo. "It's great to have Dave, who is able to play an array of instruments, so that we're able to try the same songs with different sounds. It was like Dave would pick up a banjo and try that, pick up a fiddle and try that, pick up the lap steel and try that, and hopefully, one would stick."

Indeed, Boquist's rich textures contribute a hint of Sixties country rock to an album that's otherwise dry and stark. Farrar is just as enthusiastic about the other Sons. According to him, "It's great to be in a band again with exceptional people." Thanks to them, he's certain that putting Uncle Tupelo behind him was the right thing to do. "It was essentially liberating, because everyone in Son Volt does contribute quite a lot. No one really knew what was going to happen, so there was really a sense of adventure. Luckily, things turned out."

Son Volt. 8 p.m. Saturday, December 16, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $10, 322-2308.

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Joshua Green