Son Volt Honors the Blues, Nick Drake, and St. Louis on Latest Record
Bandleader Jay Farrar talks Uncle Tupelo, history, and blues guitar greats.
Jay Farrar is what you might call the archetypal journeyman. At age 50, he remains an architect of modern Americana as he continues to fuse the disparate genres of rock, roots, folk, blues and country into his musical amalgam. As a founder of the band Uncle Tupelo, one the first examples of the alt-country template, he continues to ply his craft both on his own and as a continuing presence in Son Volt, a group that was spawned from the break-up of Uncle Tupelo and Farrar’s split with cofounder Jeff Tweedy.
Son Volt has undergone several lineup changes in its 20-year trajectory but Farrar continues to stay the course, alternating projects with the band and his own solo ventures (Gob Iron with fellow singer-songwriter Anders Parker, soundtrack contributions to the films “The Slaughter Rule” and the Jack Kerouac documentary “One Fast Move Or I’m Gone,” and two EPs he’s released on his own).
Farrar spoke on the phone with me from his home in St. Louis, the place he’s resided for much of his life. It's also the subject was Son Volt’s latest album, their eighth. Titled Notes of Blue, the record finds Farrar looking back towards the origins of American music, placing its emphasis on blues, and some pointed observations aside. We’ll let Farrar himself explain the rest.
Lee Zimmerman: Let’s start out by discussing the new album. It seems to combine all the qualities Son Volt is known for, both the winsome ballads and the edgier elements as well.
Jay Farrar: I’ve always wanted to do a recording that focused on the blues, one that had a blues element to it. This album gave me a chance to expand on that concept. In particular, I wanted to explore the guitar tunings of Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell. At the same time, I was going for a folk-oriented project based on the music of Nick Drake, so concurrently I was exploring Nick Drake’s guitar tunings as well. The two projects kind of merged and ultimately there seemed like there was a kind of commonality of purpose. Another thing I wanted was to focus on was fingerpicking styles, and that was definitely a component of all those guys. The blues formed the roots of country music from the start — Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams were prime examples of that — and so I was aiming for the point where blues, folk, and country music converged, and then Nick Drake inserted himself into the process.
Ordinarily, Nick Drake wouldn’t be considered part of those designs. So it is interesting how you managed to infuse him into the mix.
The more I found out about Nick Drake, the more I learned that he was a big fan of American blues. There are a couple of bonus tracks on the new album including one that’s an Irish traditional tune and another that’s a song by Jackson C. Frank, who was a contemporary of Nick Drake’s. Several songs are borne out of the folk-oriented project I was working on, and the others derived from the blues thing.
When you began your career with Uncle Tupelo in the ‘80s and ‘90s, this thing we now call Americana hadn’t really been defined as such. Did you see yourselves as setting any kind of precedent early on?
It just seemed like more of a continuum really, especially following bands like the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers. It kind of created an amalgam of rock and folk music, and so in a lot of ways it felt like trying to pick up where they left off, and being inspired by what they did and then putting our own stamp on it.
You have an active solo career, and at this point, it appears that as far as Son Volt is concerned, you are the man at the helm. How do you decide if a record is going to be credited to Son Volt, or if it’s going to be a solo album with your name alone on the cover?
It has a lot to do with the songs and how they’re flushed out. It also has to do with how you want to spend the next year of your life. I was looking forward to getting back to the band chemistry and the comradery of that.
Still, it’s been awhile since the last Son Volt record...
Yup. The last one was in 2013.
And its predecessor came out a few years before that. It seems that Son Volt moves at a very deliberate pace.
Yeah, I spent the last year working with my duo project, Gob Iron, and after that, I wanted to get back into the band context.
How have you seen the progression of Americana over the past decade or so? What are your thoughts as far as where the genre is now?
It’s evolving. The bands that have played that type of music have always been around, but now there seems to be more awareness of it. More people seem to be talking about it. I may not be the best person to talk about it in a contemporary sense because I tend to look back further towards the roots of the music and to try to make sense of that. I’m more about folk and blues and early rock for that matter. I’m a student of history.
There are a lot of musicians who are students of history, and one would suspect that you and the music you’ve made are on their curriculum. You helped make that turn from the Burritos and the Byrds and into the modern music we call Americana today.
It always felt like a continuum to me. There were bands we were influenced by X, the Blasters, the True Believers, Alejandro Escovedo... folks like Jason and the Scorchers. They were making their music when we were kids.
It’s a broad term, Americana.
Yes, and that’s what’s good about it. It’s hard to narrow it down, but that’s what makes it interesting. It can be misconstrued I’m sure. It’s never easy for musicians to define whatever box they find themselves in. It’s always best to focus on the music and see how it flies.
The fact that you’ve made so much memorable music — with your bands and on your own — does that tend to set a high bar, one that you’re always aware of when you step into the studio to start a new project?
I’ve chosen not to think about it in those terms. I’m always thinking about what’s next, what’s going to take me to a place I haven’t been before. I look to history to learn about the origins of the music as we know it, so I can be informed about the music I’m trying to do. I try to drill down on that. Those are the things that keep me inspired.
Was there ever any thought about Uncle Tupelo reuniting, even temporarily, and doing another record?
I don’t know. It’s hard to comment on that. There are so many variables. Tweedy and I have started emailing lately. I think we both realize there are so many other things to worry about other than the differences we had in the past. Things like sending our kids out into the world. Way more important things like that to tend to.
It could be interesting, even if it was a one-off. Of course, trying to replicate past glories can be problematic.
Yeah! There’s nothing in the works right now, but let’s see how it shakes out.
Are you a nostalgic kind of guy? Do you ever think about past glories and the experiences that went with them?
I’ve had the opportunity to go back with some of the reissues, whether it’s Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt. It gave me a chance to look back and reflect on the work that was done. It gave me the opportunity to go back and look through some of the old recordings we had done. That’s about the extent of it. Whatever comes along through happenstance, it can be interesting to look through the old stuff, but it’s not something I choose to do on a regular basis, unless there’s a reason for it.
Do you still enjoy the touring and playing live?
I do. It’s a different experience than it was when I was 21. As Bob Dylan said, "it’s for the young to be passionate and the old to be wise." I approach touring from that Dylan-esque perspective now. Musicians talk about how many birthdays and anniversaries they miss when they’re out on the road, and in the next three months, I will miss every birthday and every anniversary my family has planned. But I’m looking forward to it nevertheless. The touring seems to be more sustained when there’s a new record out, but in-between, it tends to be more like a week here, a week there.
What’s kept you in St. Louis all these years? Wouldn’t Nashville or Austin or New York be a better fit?
This is where I’m from, and my family is here. It’s also a good location in terms of touring. It’s pretty centrally located, so it’s a good place to be. The cost of living is good, and so there are a lot of things keeping me here.
Things are strange in this country now. There’s a lot of polarization and discontent. Do you sense that that will affect the vibe or the mood of the audience?
I don’t think it’s anything that can be discerned. I’ve been doing this almost 30 years now and I’ve travelled through a lot of political landscapes. It is an unprecedented time, though. It’s inspired maybe five songs already, and it will probably lead to a lot more. There’s a lot of polarization and division, and I’m writing songs to kind of come to terms with that.
The same thing happened in the ‘60s. Back then people claimed that music could change the world. Do you believe that?
I do but I don’t know that that would apply to the music I make. But I feel compelled to try.