Farrar, Son Volt Carry On Alt-Country Legacy

jay_farrar_smallThe legacy of the Uncle Tupelo – it’s what will follow Jay Farrar for the rest of his musical career. As he takes his band Son Volt on the road in support of their 6th studio album, American Central Dust, they rolled into Indianapolis for a show at The Vogue.

Farrar continues to play music far closer to the classic sound and feel of his years with Uncle Tupelo than any group today, including former bandmate’s Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco. Not that we’re here to start a tired conversation about who is better, Wilco or Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo, but to remember Farrar is important because of his history and the way Son Volt has carried on that legacy

Farrer, on the phone from St. Louis as the band gears up for a three-day early August Midwest trip, is simultaneously understated and forthcoming. He admits there is a reason the new record sounds like a band playing together.

“We tried to capture the essence of the band with as much live recording as possible, in the same place at same time,” he says. “Analog was preferred method of recording; direct to analog and then switch over to computers to mix. This record reflects to coalescence and chemistry of playing eight months on the road before recording.

During our conversation, Jay stops to ask what venue they are playing when the band comes to Indianapolis. When I tell him, you can hear him take a breath of familiarity.

“Oh, yeah. Good,” he says.

I ask what comes to mind when he thinks of Indianapolis. He tells a story I knew but had forgotten.

“In the early days of Uncle Tupelo touring, our van broke down once in Indianapolis. Brian Henneman (of the Bottle Rockets) was our guitar tech at the time and immortalized that experience in one of his songs, called Indianapolis.”

I found the lyrics on the web. Here are the first four lines of the infectious, mid-tempo country rock tune:

“Got a tow, from a guy named Joe,
Cost sixty dollars, hope I don’t run outta dough.
Told me ’bout a sex offense put him three days in jail,
Stuck in Indianapolis, hope I live to tell the tale.”

Luckily, they all did. Son Volt’s new album came out July 7. The Bottle Rockets have “Lean Forward” out August 11, and Tweedy’s latest incarnation of Wilco released their self-titled new record out this summer.

Son Volt’s first record, “Trace” was one of Rolling Stone’s Top 10 albums of 1995, and the song “Drown” got the band on rock radio.

Some writers have noted that the new Son Volt release echoes the sound of that debut record, even though the band features – other than Farrar, – a completely different lineup. The writing is more accessible than on “Trace” – more populist in a sense – and the feeling may rise from not just the lyrics but the instruments in the mix. In a change from his past efforts, Farrar played acoustic guitar for the recording, instead of strapping on the electric.

“I began to realize the emphasis – the fuel that makes everything go – in a live setting maybe that wasn’t the best approach on the record,” Farrar admits. “I felt like the best way to make this a focused, cohesive record was to play acoustic guitar and that’s the way in ended up transpiring. There are also two soloists – Mark Spencer on pedal steel and Chris Masterson on electric, so that is a different approach for Son Volt, in the dual leads sometimes going on.”

Farrer has a surprising answer to what excites him most about the album – surprising coming from the guy who builds albums on cutting little lines like “love is a fog and you stumble every step you take,” from “Dust of Daylight” on this record.

“Bringing back the emphasis to a more familiar aesthetic, especially with the pedal steel guitar. Having that instrument is where it’s at for me,” he says. “I’m actually trying to learn how to play myself. I have a more of a starter version with two little palm levers, to bend the pitch, so it is actually a lap steel with string benders. Mark was a lap steel player prior to recording this record, so he pretty much woodshedded to bring the pedal steel to the forefront.”

Some inspiration for the music also seeped in from Farrar’s habits. He mentioned that he and the band started listening to Mexican radio, especially when they were touring the Southwest last year.

“It is sort of cleansing and cathartic to hear something different. We were trying to dissect the music and instrumentation and the way these guys were playing – It just kind of blew our mind,” he recounts. “Takes you to a place you haven’t been before. Ultimately, we did incorporate part of that sound on this album.”

For listeners, “American Dust Central” brings to mind Middle America, as Farrar regularly does, and the record’s subject of downtrodden but hopeful people weaves throughout the effort.

“I always try to find words that are recurring in songs that are representative,” he says of the album title. “I pulled three words from three songs. I feel that is always the best way to come up with a title that’s most representative of all the songs, as opposed to last record (2007’s “The Search”) where pulled a song title as the album title.

The music rides along at a pace that goes along with telling stories of heartbreak, but Farrer says it’s not an album filled with pessimism.

“Someone described it as dire optimism,” he says about the record. “In my interpretation, it is optimism more than anything else. It was written in summer of 2008, so it just felt like the country was breathing a little easier and headed in a little different direction; at least that’s the way I was looking at it when these songs were written.”

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