Jay Farrar looks back on 20 years of Son Volt
In 1995, No Depression printed its first issue with a story by co-founding editor Peter Blackstock leading the way. Titled “Dim Lights, Small Cities,” the article examined the debut album, Trace, from Son Volt – the band formed by Jay Farrar after he left alt-country pioneer Uncle Tupelo.
Now, 20 years on, Farrar is working on a package of demos from the Trace era for an anniversary reissue. “It’s been an interesting last couple of months,” he says over the phone. “I’ve been listening to demos and the four-tracks … and trying to find a machine to play a Son Volt show that was recorded at The Bottom Line in New York, in a mobile truck, back in 1996.”
Farrar is excited about these two projects in the works – both expected sometime this year. But, at press time, Farrar was still in what he calls the “gathering stage.”
“I’ve made it through four-track demos and there were also some half-inch demos from Pachyderm Studios in Minneapolis,” he says. “Those both sound quite good – as good as the versions that wound up on Trace, whereas the four-track demos have a more organic, Guided By Voices vibe.
“It’s interesting,” he adds, waxing nostalgic in the face of this project. “You see the development of the songs a bit, especially the four-track stuff since I was the engineer and I never had engineered anything before … it was kind of an interesting ride.”
In fact, an “interesting ride” is a good way to describe how his career has played out since Trace set him down a new road. The now 48-year-old Farrar has released eight Son Volt records. As a solo artist, he’s put out two full-length albums, two EPs, one film score, and various live recordings. Most recently, in 2013, he added another Son Volt album, Honky Tonk, to his canon, plus New Multitudes – a collaboration with Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Will Johnson (Centro-matic) and Anders Parker (Varnaline) that was inspired by the work of Woody Guthrie.
But, let’s go back to the sort-of beginning.
Son Volt’s debut made Rolling Stone’s critics’ Top 10 in 1995, though it barely cracked the Billboard 200 album chart, peaking at #166. Farrar remembers that time well. Asked whether he ever considered himself a trailblazer for taking musical lunges that led to a resurgence in the Americana and roots music scene — pushing new musical boundaries in what was then dubbed alt-country – Farrar demurs. “Not really,” he says. “We were just soaking up influences and putting our own stamp on it. Ultimately, rather than a new movement, it was just a continuum … we were continuing the movement.”
One need look no further than Farrar’s early influences for the origin of that continuum. He grew up listening to everything from classic rock to garage rock and country. All of these styles weaved their way into his songwriting. “One of the first things I started playing was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” he recalls. “Then I got into American garage rock such as the Spandells and the Chocolate Watchband … that kind of stuff.”
Later, Farrar dug further back into the old musical treasure chest to discover the true roots of the bands he was digging. “I did a  and started to get into the music of my folks – country and folk music like Hank Williams and Buck Owens,” he says. “It all got thrown into the mix.”
It’s that same mix that no doubt inspired his previous band, Uncle Tupelo, to dig into folk classics like the Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven,” and give them new life. That innovation was so arresting that, two decades after that band’s infamous split, many fans still wonder if Uncle Tupelo will ever reunite for another tour or album.
"I’ve always followed inspiration wherever it may go." - Jay Farrar
To hear Farrar tell it, that’s doubtful. “That’s certainly not something I think about,” he says. “Interestingly enough, looking back at this Trace reissue I’ve reflected a bit on what went into the making of that record, [and] I do want to talk about the mixing of the Trace record a bit.
“The mixing of Trace was difficult because Jeff Tweedy basically interfered with the mixing of that record,” he continues. “I don’t know if you remember, but back in 1994 when Tom Petty’s Wildflowers came out, the whole world liked the way that record sounded and the way it was recorded. I looked to work with Jim Scott and David Bianco, but for whatever reason those two guys couldn’t do it, so that left Richard Dodd [who won the Best Engineer Grammy Award for Petty’s Wildflowers and worked on A.M., the 1995 debut from Tweedy’s Wilco]. He was available. I entered negotiations with him to mix Son Volt’s Trace record. Jeff caught wind of that and called Richard and flat-out asked him to not work with Son Volt.
“I don’t know if Jeff’s motivation was insecurity, malice, or both, but the end result was the same,” Farrar adds. “Richard Dodd was an advisor on that Son Volt record and not the mixer. Special language was even put into a contract to appease Jeff [Tweedy]; it stated that Richard Dodd shall not touch the knobs on the mixing console for the Son Volt Trace record. I didn’t have a problem working with the same people, but for some reason Jeff did.”
By now, the falling out between Tweedy and Farrar that took place back in the day is well-documented. Still, Farrar “was aghast,” he says. “It made no sense, but that’s what went down. Certainly, along the way, I realized the more I talk about Jeff the less I’m going to talk about Son Volt.”
While Tweedy declined to comment for this story, in an interview with St. Louis Magazine a few years back, he offered these thoughts: “Sadly, it’s not an easy thing to talk about,” he said. “I don’t have any reason to say anything negative or bad. I don’t feel like we are in competition. It’s just two guys that went to high school together, were in a band together, and drifted apart. There’s a certain faction of music fans – I think a fairly small faction, at this point in time – that obsess over the concept of there being some sort of reunion. I understand the curiosity if you’re a fan of Uncle Tupelo, but sadly there’s no story there.”
Fair enough. So, let’s get back to talking about the Son Volt story and the Trace remixes. Farrar says a lot of the demos will need to be mastered, but he has already mixed the four-track. The other project, the Son Volt Bottom Line show from 1996, also needs to be mixed. Until then, Farrar is doing some touring, primarily as a duo with Gary Hunt, who plays fiddle, mandolin, electric, and steel guitar. “He is a very versatile guy and plays lots of stringed instruments,” says Farrar. “It provides for more flexibility. After doing a bunch of touring off the Son Volt Honky Tonk record, it was nice to have a bit of a break, without a full band.”
And, as the songwriter approaches 50, one wonders if his muse is still visiting as often. “I still write, but I don’t know if I would characterize it [as being] with the same frequency as I used to,” he admits. “In the past, I just carried on with the momentum of what was going on. Writing was something I did all the time. Now, I’m focused in more limited amounts. I do have a couple projects in the works, though.
“I’ve always followed inspiration wherever it may go,” he adds. “It’s an interesting time. … I’m looking to do some other projects. Write some more acoustic songs, more of a folk record with even an Irish tune thrown into the mix. At the same time, I’m looking to write songs for potentially another Son Volt record.”
Two decades since the critically-acclaimed Trace showed there was plenty of life left for Farrar’s musical career following the acrimonious split with Tweedy and Uncle Tupelo, one thing is clear: the wind still carries him and his muse away to new and exciting places.
This article was written for our Fall 2015 issue of No Depression in print, which was our return to the page after seven years of being an online-only publication. It's been digitized as a special feature during our month-long subscription drive. Please subscribe today and receive a year's worth of No Depression in print for more great longform music writing like this, most of which is not available anywhere online.