With a new studio album and a memoir-tilting book he describes as “folk-writing,” the alt-country founding father shifts into high gear. The band’s latest tour starts tonight, Sept. 18.
BY KELLY DEARMORE
Son Volt’s leader and sole continual member Jay Farrar has become an artist in a more concentrated sense than ever before, perhaps. Such a claim sounds a bit odd, given that Farrar is considered a practical founding-father of the modern Alternative Country style of music. But in the past four years, Farrar has capably narrowed his ingenuity to work on individual adventures with very specific scopes. In this manner, the results have been more akin to a painter or sculptor who obsesses over one particular piece than a songwriter, always in the middle of a number of different projects, regardless of theme.
Coming out closely together, Honky Tonk (Rounder), Son Volt’s seventh studio album released this week and Farrar’s literary debut, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs (Soft Skull Press, March 19), are two separate outlets, yet each were birthed from Farrar being compelled to explore an individual avenue until he found what he wanted exactly. For regular Joe’s, buying a kayak or gym memberships are representative of passing phases that rarely produce anything. Farrar, however, has little trouble mastering his various artistic phases and stages.
“I don’t know if it’s complete immersion for me,” says Farrar over the phone from his home as he gears up for the upcoming tour in support of Honky Tonk. “Perhaps it’s relative immersion, but in this case, I did make it a point to listen to a lot of George Jones, and especially Bakersfield guys like Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, because Ralph Mooney played on so many of Owens’ and Stewart recordings. I’m in awe of his pedal steel playing, and with Stewart and Owens bringing a rock and roll intensity to country music, which hadn’t been there before, there music resonated with me since I come from a different direction than a purely country one.”
In 2009, Farrar teamed with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard to record the Jack Kerouac-inspired One Fast Move or I’m Gone, the soundtrack to a documentary recounting the King of the Beat Poets’ time spent in Big Sur California. In that same year, Farrar saw after the recording of Son Volt’s excellent American Central Dust LP. Last year, Farrar joined forces with previous Gob Iron (another project of Farrar’s) partner Anders Parker and fellow indie-rock studs Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Will Johnson of Centro-matic to create the best Woody Guthrie-intensive record since the Mermaid Sessions albums of Wilco and Billy Bragg, New Multitudes. The album combined original Guthrie lyrics set to new rock arrangements written by the four artists, with Farrar leading the way.
“It makes sense for me to drill down the parameters of a project,” says Farrar. “I really enjoyed the Kerouac and Guthrie projects, because they took me away from the normal creative process and I got to work with inspirational elements from different artists. I dove in and learned from those experiences and brought them back to what I normally do. I found that this record explored certain aesthetics that I began in those projects.”
Each of these undertakings required Farrar to go beyond simply setting a guitar on his knee and strumming it until a song popped out, which for Farrar, likely reached second-nature status 20 years ago. A keen dedication to the material which sat directly in-front of him was vital in the success of each project. The new book and album successfully bares the fruit of Farrar’s focus in much the same way as the aforementioned experiences have. Honky Tonk, which proffers the sound one would expect from an album with such a direct title, is the result of Farrar’s curiosity of what lies beneath the surface when creative intrigue sets in.
“The new record’s a combination of some things that were going on with American Central Dust,” he says. “Plus, I wanted to recognize and pay homage to honky-tonk music, which I really got into while I was learning to play the pedal steel in the past year and a half. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to feel limited by any parameters. Some of the songs stray from straight honky-tonk a bit, but they still fall within the framework of elemental American music. We used a lot more traditional instrumentation, like mandolin, accordion and fiddle than we had before.”
Even seasoned vets can find themselves awed when in the middle of musical discovery. Such awe led Farrar to begin conceptualizing the album that’s sure to help some Alt-country hipsters learn what shuffling sawdust is all about.
“As I learned the pedal steel by playing in a band (St. Louis-based Colonel Ford) with Justin Branum and Gary Hunt, who both play on the new record, I got to experience the twin-fiddle sound in a live context. I was really blown away by that and I wanted to feature that feel because it’s such a special sound that draws you in.”
While honky-tonkin’ around the Midwest grabbed a great deal of Farrar’s imagination in the past couple of years, in fitting fashion, it was a specific, individual part of the traditional style that took hold of Farrar’s interest and led him to greater exploration.
“The pedal steel can cover a broad range of emotions,” Farrar says. “It can be very emotive or evocative. There are many different elements comprising the whole package. Different tunes, different combinations of pedals and strings and then, there’s the steel bar. Those all come together to create different sounds, and that’s something I definitely wanted to capture on this record.”
Indeed, Farrar’s take on traditional country sounds and pedal steel-driven tunes are captured expertly on the album’s 11 tracks, with “Hearts and Minds,” “Brick Walls,” and “Barricades,” offering rough-hewn proof that Farrar learned a great deal from his back-road barroom baptism. In the same month that music fans will listen to what Farrar has captured sonically, they will be able to also read what he’s collected from a lifetime of experiences in the finely curated collection of memories that make up his memoir. While the book isn’t intended to be a companion to the album, there’s a shared sepia-toned sense of home and familiarity clearly present within each tale.
“Calling it a memoir might be a stretch,” admits Farrar. “It’s definitely a book that relates to real-life stories and situations, mainly through short-stories and vignettes. It’s a non-fiction book, and it and the album are essentially two different works, though there’s some stories drawn from the influence of my father, who brought country music into my world, so there’s a correlation between the book and the new record in that sense. The book is more of an example of folk-writing than it is an autobiography.”
For an artist with a revered track record and the attention to aesthetic detail that Farrar has, he offers a profoundly succinct way of summarizing perhaps the most productive period of his fantastic career thus far.
“I’m just a musician with a book. I don’t want to make the authors out there mad.”
Son Volt kicks off a two week tour starting Sept. 18 in Oxford, Miss. View dates at the band’s official website: http://www.sonvolt.net/
[Pictured at top, left to right: Gary Hunt, Jay Farrar, Dave Bryson, Mark Spencer, Andrew Duplantis. Photo by Emily Nathan]