Son Volt released their debut album Trace in 1995, offering a uniquely original perspective on traditional American music. The album’s messages are intimately connected to the lifetimes of generations of midwesterners deeply influenced by the sway of the eternally rolling Mississippi River. With unassuming openness and candor, Jay Farrar creates somber musical atmospheres that serve as essential backdrops for his grim portrayals of America’s heartland and life along the grand river that divides the East from the West.
Trace, thick with a fog of loneliness and brimming with a sense of heritage, combines external descriptive imagery and a strong sense of midwestern history and lifestyle with an internal perspective, resulting in a truly dynamic musical statement. “Ten Second News” exemplifies one of the album’s dour but provocative messages. Farrar uses the metaphor of natural and manmade disasters to paint a compelling portrait of desperation intensely rooted in its environment. The song drones with a tractor like hum of sadness and offers a bleak ride down “sunny 44,” a highway that passes a beach “known for cancer,” hypnotizing with a numbing tedium of endless billboard signs. Times Beach, Missouri had, in fact, become so highly carcinogenic as a result of oil being sprayed to keep dust down in the 1970s that the EPA had to relocate all residents of the town. The “cough in the water” that passes through the levee gates is Farrar’s reference to the Great Flood of 1993, the worst such U.S. disaster since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Opening with a reluctant acoustic strum joined by the exhausted groan of a slide guitar, a discernible mood is set that emphasizes the sense of dread and futility, “There must be an answer for what keeps it going on.”
“When you find what matters is what you feel,
It arrives, and it disappears.
Driving down sunny 44 highway,
There’s a beach there known for cancer waiting to happen.
When you’re out across the county line,
The news travels slower than a ten-second buzz.
And only you’ll ever know,
‘Cause day by day it disappears,
Only you’ll ever know.
And it’s hard enough soaking up billboard signs,
You scorch and drown alive,
Never knowing why.
The levee gates are open wide,
There’s a cough in the water, and it’s running into town.
Bright eyes, don’t change, stay the same.
There must be an answer for what keeps it going on.
But only you’ll ever know,
‘Cause day by day it disappears, Only you’ll ever know.”