We are drawing today’s train song from alt.country’s ever-productive well of railroad-related imagery. Son Volt, of course, are half of the genre pioneers Uncle Tupelo, and fronted by Jay Farrar. While the other half Wilco went on to indie stardom, Son Volt has largely kept rolling along with the same sound – a winning and safe formula of slide guitars, slow tempos, and Jay Farrar’s slightly disaffected drawl. Critics of Son Volt lament how the band fell into a bit of a creative rut after about an album or two, and its true band certainly does not rock like Uncle Tupelo used to. You definitely have to be in the right kind of lackadaisical mood for Son Volt, but for a lazy summer afternoon, or a meandering drive out in the countryside one would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate soundtrack.
The song is not immediately recognizable as a train song, as lyrically it mostly focuses on general themes of movement and separation from a partner, and on trying to survive “like creosote.” Creosote is a product that certainly would help something survive. Produced from the distillation of tar, it has a myriad of other uses, but in the context of railroading, it was applied to wooden railroad ties as a preservative. Any railroad builder worth their salt would naturally want the track to last, so production of creosote took off with the rapid spread of the railroad network in the latter half of the nineteenth century, unfortunately it is quite a hazardous chemical. A old creosoting plant in Gainesville is now a contaminated Superfund cleanup site and surely its not the only one out there.
Besides the creosote reference, the song also contains one of my favorite train song lines – “From Memphis to New Orleans, in and out of railroad dreams / youre out there in scenes, passing by.” In additon to being a nice rhyme, being “in and out of railroad dreams,” pretty accurately describes my life over the past few years. Its undoubtedly referring to the Illinois Central railroad line between these two cities, which shows up again and again in train song lore (Casey Jones, City of New Orleans, etc…) So this line, and the connection between creosote and railroading is enough, in my book at least, to plant this song firmly in the train song category.