Every once in a while it’s good to take a breather, a vacation from our various stress-loads. But Jay Farrar, the longtime Son Volt bandleader, doesn’t subscribe to this. How can he? Within the last 15 months, he’s released two totally diverse record projects and is now engaged in a nationwide solo tour. He’s still on the open road and running with it.
Along with Jeff Tweedy, his estranged former partner from the seminal Roots Rock band Uncle Tupelo back in the late ’80s, Farrar is one of the true figureheads of the AltCountry genre. Since Tupelo’s break-up in ’94, Farrar has gone on to help define and expand the Americana brand of Roots Rock and Country. He has alternately released Son Volt’s full-band records, solo ones and several movie soundtracks.
I spoke with Farrar as he readied to return to the road after spending Halloween weekend with his family in the greater St. Louis area. If you’ve ever seen him perform, you know he’s not the most effusive of frontmen. In fact, he could give Bob Dylan a run this decade for the most inscrutable singer around — no glib stage chatter for these two.
Fortunately, I learned that reticence doesn’t extend to his interviews; Farrar is both gracious and expressive.
Last year Son Volt put out the heralded American Central Dust, an acoustic collection of melodic Country laments that recalls the band’s classic debut, Trace. A few months later Farrar was asked by Jim Sampas, Jack Kerouac’s nephew, to write a soundtrack to accompany a Kerouac documentary based on his novel, Big Sur.
He literally met his new songwriting partner, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie, the night before they entered the studio in San Francisco to record One Fast Move and I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur.
“Getting to work with Ben Gibbard was nice,” Farrar says. “Ultimately, we have a shared sensibility, but going into it all we had was a common interest in Jack Kerouac. In Big Sur there’s what Jack called ‘Sea Poems,’ where he was just kind of free-forming poetry. We started there and put melody to some of these words and then moved into the text of the book itself for ideas.”
Farrar has always been an instinctive writer. His two strongest gifts as a songwriter are his distinctive, impressionistic lyricism and his trademark stark drone of a voice, which gives his lyrics a stoic authenticity.
“Kerouac’s method of writing left an impression on me somewhere along the way,” Farrar says. ”(That) idea of just getting your first thoughts out there and not being too analytical about it. Not a lot of structure. I believe in the idea that impressions count, you know?”
Farrar has also colored his recent songs with more piano, mandolin and fiddle. One of the standout ballads on Central Dust is the aching hymn “Cocaine and Ashes,” where Farrar tips his hat to Keith Richards, who once admitted snorting his father’s ashes. In making that connection, it’s easy to see how the vintage Stones of the early ’70s — the Sticky Fingers era — might appeal to Farrar. The Stones’ ragged habit of mixing greasy rockers with moonshine-corroded Country Soul formed an early archetype for AltCountry. The market just hadn’t labeled the genre yet.
“Uncle Tupelo did some recording at this farm in Massachusetts, and that’s where the Stones rehearsed for one of their tours in the ’80s,” Farrar says. “The local engineers played me tapes of Keith playing piano, drinking gin, and it was quite good. I did find it inspirational enough to give playing the piano a shot.”
Finishing our talk, I couldn't help but think of Farrar’s ex-band partner in contrast. Though Wilco has obviously had more commercial success, Farrar has forged his own individual way these last 15 years. Between his evocative soundtrack scores, his tape-looped, open-tuning experimentation on solo records like Sebastopol and Son Volt’s own Roots-anchored canon, Farrar more than holds his own in any weight class.
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