By Mark Guarino
If there is an American songwriter who is effectively continuing the legacy of Woody Guthrie, it is Jay Farrar. Starting with the scruffy punk songs he recorded with Uncle Tupelo in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to the lean rock direction of his band Son Volt, Farrar’s songwriting has consistently presented a grand vision of America as an endless highway of bittersweet dreams, corrupt storm warnings and romantic possibilities. His stoic voice, abstract lyrics and rock steady songcraft has resulted in music that is open for interpretation but is also intrinsically rooted in the desolation of Midwestern towns and how understanding the past is key to figuring out the future.
After a series of solo albums best described as rural psychedelia, Farrar is returning to the Son Volt brand for the new rock album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot” (Sony Legacy). Despite the fact the band is an entirely new line-up from that of its first three albums, Son Volt is receiving its best reviews since its stunning 1995 debut, “Trace” (Warner Bros.).
Farrar, 37, recently talked about his new chapter. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: What led to your decision to want to resurrect the name Son Volt?
A: I guess doing the tour with Canyon and the (live) “Stone, Steel & Bright Lights” record made me realize I wanted to get back to a group dynamic and Son Volt was the entity that was there before as the vehicle for the songs I was writing … Coming off the last studio record, “Terroir Blues,” which was more of a down, acoustic-based record, I was looking to get back to an electric sound. And the stuff I was writing was more uptempo, melodic stuff.
Q: Do you see the band name as more of a brand or is there a true band dynamic?
A: A little bit of both. It starts off as the brand name but each incarnation, each musician brings his own style and elements of his own musical background into the mix.
Q: I’ve read interviews with you and with the original Son Volt members and no one seems to pin down the real reason why you all couldn’t come back together. What is the reason?
A: I don’t know. That’s something that I never really learned from them. Leading up to the whole situation, I never really understood why they made the decision they did. I tried to make it plain that we could work through it all, just get together as a band and play, try to work out the details later. But they didn’t want to do it that way. I can only assume we had grown apart over the course of the four years we had been on hiatus. People develop different commitments and priorities. I know Jim (Boquist) played with Paul Westerberg prior to the reunion attempt.
Q: The title of your new album mentions Woody Guthrie’s birthplace. What has he meant to you as a songwriter?
A: I was exposed to his music at a pretty early age. Both my father would sing his songs and my mother as well. To me, he’s always represented someone who took on social injustices especially as he saw them and he wasn’t afraid to do that. Maybe at this time for me he was a point of reference or a point of inspiration, someone to look to at as I was thinking about writing about topical issues which did sort of work their way into the writing this time around because a lot of the songs were written during the run up to the election of 2004.
Q: To write about big issues, what do you have to do to make them work in a song?
A: That’s difficult. I’ve usually shied away from it (and have) written about things from more of a local perspective. There’s also an element of it being more disposable or ephemeral when writing about current stuff (so) I’ve tried to make it so it’s not over the top or too overt.
Q: As someone watching TV during the last election, what was going on in your head?
A: I sort of felt things were headed in the wrong direction and there was almost a wanton disregard for lessons learned in the past. Whether it was the Vietnam war or whatever. It seemed like people weren’t making decision based on sound evidence or judgment.
Q: Do you feel that lately we’ve been on a decline, where artists have shied away from making any meaningful statements with their music?
A: I have noticed that. And since then, I don’t know what the reason for that is. I know in the early 80s there seemed to be more of an independent spirit, especially in music. I think you can take it back farther back to the Vietnam war where a lot of people were speaking out then. I guess it all relates back to the draft. If that was happening today, I think people would be speaking out more.
Q: Your songs typically view things through a bigger scope than most songwriters. You’re not just writing love songs or reporting on specific life experiences. Why is stepping back and writing about the environment or history such an attraction?
A: I think it’s more of a recent thing. To even be acknowledging things on a bigger scale like that or from a larger perspective. Because probably for me it comes with having a family. Just thinking about what future exists for them.
Q: Are you more cynical now than maybe you might not have been in the past?
A: Last year I would have been, now I’m not. I’m pretty optimistic. I think people learn lessons the hard way but people will ultimately make the right decisions based on what they see and what they observe.
Q: One song on your new album, “Gramophone,” references a simpler time, of experiencing the world through limited means. Does that appeal to you?
A: Not really. I took some poetic license with that song. I don’t have a gramophone. I do have 78 player. “Gramophone” just seemed to flow better with song than “78 player.” (laughs) I came across some blues 78s about a year ago that I had never seen them before, mostly because there’s a lot of collectors out there. So I was able to put down some old Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, B.B. Ling, Johnny “Guitar” Watson. It was great it to hear them on medium the way people used to hear that stuff. There was just an extra little something there based on the physical act of the needle hitting the record, more of an ethereal quality to it.
Q: And you record analog too, right?
A: Analog sounds better. At least to my ears. It’s something I’m attune to because I grew up recording to analog which I’m used to hearing. But I also think there’s also something happens, a natural compression occurs on tape you can’t really duplicate digitally.
Q: When writing, how does a song develop?
A: The process usually starts with a fragment of a song. Either a lyric or a bit of melody and it gets built up from there. More often than not, I’m writing on acoustic guitar and just building the song, adding lyrics as I go. Occasionally I’ll write all the lyrics while driving a car. But more often than not it’s just kind of sitting down and hashing it out.
Q: And I assume songs get rejected all the time. What kind of songs are you rejecting?
A: The type of songs that get rejected I guess are the songs I perceive as similar to something I’ve done in the past or similar something someone else has done. I have been, in the past several years since the year 2000, I’ve been writing a lot more using alternative tunings and that helps shape the direction of the song and in a lot of ways, it ensures that it maybe is not going to sound like what I’ve done because a lot of the tunings are not very common or they’re esoteric … That’s one way of ensuring no one else has done it. It also ensures I’ll probably forget it too. (laughs)
Q: How do you remember them?
A: I have to write it all down. It’s usually a crash course leading up to the recording. Where I have to learn all the chord configurations for the different tunings. But usually somehow it usually work out. And after the recording, I can relax and forget them all.
Q: Uncle Tupelo is a band much like the Velvet Underground: It’s been obsessed over way more than when the band actually existed. Has it become a burden being in that band?
A: It has. There has certainly been a lot more drama created with the success that (co-founder) Jeff (Tweedy) has had. That’s something he wanted. I think in a lot of ways we both found we wanted. He wanted success, he got it. I wanted to spend time with my family and scale back and slow things down, I was able to do that. And I learned a lot from both playing solo and recording solo and spending time with my family. I gained a lot from that.
Q: Has the talk about the band’s influence melding country with rock been overblown?
A: It’s always been a little hard to get a handle on. Why Uncle Tupelo would be singled out as being influential in one way or another. I necessary have never understood it. We just happen to be there doing it. Maybe we were the only people doing it at a certain time.
Q: In a way, a legacy is shaped by design, isn’t it? The particulars of a band become history depending on who is doing the talking.
A: Absolutely, yeah. My approach to the whole breakup of Uncle Tupelo is live and let live. Sort of looking at it that we were better off not being in band together. So I didn’t spend my time talking about it, Jeff made the decision to do just that. I was most recently, through (Greg Kot’s book, “Wilco: Leaning How To Die”), shocked at a lot of the things (Tweedy) was saying. So now I’m just dealing with the hand I was dealt and now I have to talk about it.