Jay Farrar is the one constant in 25 years of Son Volt
I saw Uncle Tupelo at Bogart’s in the early 1990s before I understood the influence that band would have over the next decade. More than 15 years later, I talked to Farrar before Son Volt came to the Southgate House on the “American Central Dust” tour. He was matter-of-fact, not interested in his place in alt-country history, but still passionate about trying to write and play good music. Eight years later, we talked again, and he was focused on the same thing: It’s always about the songs.
Jay Farrar isn’t easily distracted. He pays no attention to passing clouds, shiny objects or the newest kids on the musical block.
What has piqued his interest over the past few years, however, is the blues. And when Son Volt’s leader decides to investigate something, it’s all in.
“I’ve done blues-oriented songs over the years, but this was a chance to focus on it a bit more in a different way,” says Farrar.
“There’s a common thread between the country music of honky-tonk and singing the blues that are inspirations of ‘Notes of Blue.’ And it’s filtered through the all the other musical influences that have inspired me over the years, so it definitely comes out in Son Volt land.”
Ah, Son Volt land. It has an unmistakable sound that is rich in nutrients from Chuck Berry (Farrar grew up and still lives in the St. Louis area), and fertilized with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. It bore fruit with Uncle Tupelo 30 years ago before emerging fully formed on Son Volt’s debut, “Trace,” in 1995. It has continued to blossom regularly since then.
“Notes of Blue” has been described as Son Volt’s blues record, like 2013’s “Honky Tonk” was called its honky-tonk record. Both reflect their titles, but Farrar’s skill is taking basic elements and crafting tunes that pay tribute to the roots and also stand on their own. That’s why anyone who plays Americana or alt-country or whatever they want to call their music should pay royalties to him.
“That’s pretty extreme, but I’ll take it,” he laughs after listening to a rambling scenario that portrays him as a crucial link in the continuum from the country rock scare of the late ’60s-early ’70s (“Sweetheart of the Rodeo”-era Byrds, Burritos, Poco) to now (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price).
Farrar is happy to salute those who came before him. “To this day, I can still listen to (the Burritos’) ‘Sin City’ and just be amazed that they were such students of the Louvin Brothers. When Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons switch lead to backup vocals between the verse and chorus, it’s remarkable.”
Before the release of “Notes of Blue,” Farrar told interviewers that the record gave him the chance to expand on the guitar tunings of blues greats like Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and then combine that with the folk music of Nick Drake. Although admirable in its intent, that seems to be pretty deep in the weeds to grab the seconds-long attention span of consumers in 2017.
Until you hear the music. Farrar has always had the countenance of an old soul (he turned 50 last year), although he’s never been old-fashioned. His wide-ranging curiosity has produced a body of work that more commercially successful artists would kill to put on their resume.
“It’s gratifying that I’ve had a creative outlet for so long, to be able to do what I’m passionate about, which is music, so I’m thankful for that,” he says.
And every fan of roots music should be thankful for Jay Farrar’s passion.
2009 - Album Release Interview
Jay Farrar’s place in the alt-country music movement is secure.
As a founding member of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar helped to popularize the twangy marriage of folk, rock and country (plus punk and soul, at times) that has sprouted over the past 25 years.
In the wake of Tupelo’s split years ago, Farrar has fronted Son Volt and recorded solo. Much has been written about Farrar’s return to the “pure” Son Volt sound on “American Central Dust,” after the mildly experimental approach of the previous album, “The Search,” that included horns and electronica with the pedal steel and slide guitars.
That strikes some as background noise: Farrar’s fans are Son Volt fans, and are likely willing to follow him down the roads (and rivers) of America as he explores his timeless themes of life, love and loss with a soundtrack that owes as much to the Rolling Stones as it does the Flying Burrito Brothers.
“To a certain extent, (this record) represents a different style of songwriting,” Farrar says. “Many of the songs have a linear central theme, whereas before I was more inspired by Jack Kerouac, throwing ideas out there.”
The intricate wordplay of sometimes unrelated ideas has always been a linchpin of Farrar’s work. Two songs on “Dust,” however, highlight the new approach.
“Cocaine and Ashes” is a lopsided compliment to Keith Richards, which includes a reference to his famous line about snorting his father’s ashes after he died. (He later insisted he was joking.)
“I met Keith once, and I’m sure he doesn’t remember me,” Farrar laughs. “But I came across a tape of him playing country, old rock ’n’ roll and even show tunes, and it inspired me to play the piano.”
After the reference to Richards’ father, “Cocaine” goes on to marvel at one of rock’s great mysteries: How has the 65-year-old Stones’ guitarist lived so long after his well-documented life of abuse?
The other is a straightforward telling of the tale of the Sultana, a steamship that sank on the Mississippi River in 1865, killing more than 1,700 people, most of whom were Union soldiers heading north from the Civil War.
“I grew up in Belleville (Illinois), about 40 minutes from the (Mississippi) river,” Farrar says. “I live in St. Louis now, about five minutes from the river.
“Sometimes, when the river is low, I’ll look for (signs of) shipwrecks in the sand bars. I’ve tried to find stories about that. That’s when I came across the Sultana.”
In addition to a narrative style, both songs share the sound of almost dirge-like pianos. So while “Dust” does remind more of early Son Volt, it also offers a twist on Farrar’s classic template.
As does the “When the Wheels Don’t Move,” Farrar’s take on the $4-plus gas prices of the summer of 2008.
“Looking back, music is one of the more resilient things out there,” he says. “When I wrote that song, (gas prices) were making it hard for people getting started. They couldn’t afford to travel to play their music.
“Music has the power the elevate; it’s cathartic. If bands can’t go on the road, that’s not good.”
Gas prices have come down since then. Bands are back on the road. Enjoy them while you can.
2009 - Concert Review
Jay Farrar called Son Volt’s 2007 album “The Search.”
It’s unlikely the title had anything to do with the makeup of the band, which had a changing cast of characters over the years. But if it did, the search is over.
The evidence was presented to an overflow crowd of more than 550 people at the Southgate House in Newport Friday night. Farrar and his sidekicks put on a solid performance that featured eight songs from the band’s new “American Central Dust.”
More than that, however, it showed why the two newest members – guitarist Chris Masterson and pedal steel and keyboard wizard Mark Spencer – combine with drummer Dave Bryson and bass player Andrew Duplantis to make this the strongest lineup in Son Volt history.
Many of Farrar’s tunes live in the languid mid-tempo range. That’s not a complaint; the band would have little to offer if it was. However, when played back-to-back-to-back, the likes of “Down to the Wire,” “Dust of Daylight” and “Highways and Cigarettes” can put an audience on permanent sway.
This is where the newest guys come in. Masterson and Spencer fill the slower songs with the right amount of guitars and keyboards, but they stand up (or sit up in Spencer’s case) a little straighter when the band begins to rock.
Whether it’s their influence or Farrar decided on his own to kick it a little harder, the set-closing run of “Methamphetamine,” “The Search,” “Buzz & Grind,” and “Bandages & Scars” had people moving their feet. Actually, with a woman in each balcony alcove beside the stage dancing to these songs, it caused an older member of the audience to flash back to the ’60s’ TV show “Shindig” (blue jeans replaced miniskirts and go-go boots Friday night) for a few moments.
With the heavy lifting out of the way, Farrar thrilled the crowd with two favorites – “Tear Stained Eye” and “Windfall” from the band’s first album – in the encore, before closing with Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.”
It’s not likely Mr. Williams did, but it’s good that Farrar and Co. are these days.
While Son Volt was meeting expectations, Cary Hudson opened the night with a set of songs that surprised everyone except his most devout followers (if there were any there).
The Mississippi-born singer-songwriter, who fronted Blue Mountain for years, sang and played with a veteran’s assurance, entertaining the early arrivers with tales of the South that included “Midnight in Mississippi” and “Magnolia Magic.”
Paying tribute to his home with references to piney woods and bluesman Junior Kimbrough, Hudson was a revelation as a solo performer. It will be interesting to see if he returns with a band in the future.