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Son Volt’s Jay Farrar

American Son: Son Volt’s Jay Farrar keeps his finger on the pulse of American roots music.

By Brian Staker
Posted // July 8,2009 -

Jay Farrar has had a career that follows the dusty winding path of American indie roots music to its tributaries in Uncle Tupelo. But on his outfit Son Volt’s latest release American Central Dust, the singer/guitarist felt a need to return to those roots he had strayed from a bit on their recent recordings.

“Having come from the previous one (The Search, 2007) trying out different instruments and arrangements, this time we are more focused,” he says.

Notably, Dust marks the band’s first album on Rounder Records, a label known for releasing a huge catalog of folk and bluegrass music, so the essentialist approach isn’t a major surprise.

Farrar didn’t even play electric guitar, so there wouldn’t be what he calls the “schizophrenic switching back and forth. What sounds like electric guitar on the album is pedal steel and violin. It’s a very clean production.” It’s a clear, concise approach that allows each song to simply state its case, though it’s not prosaic; just understated.

The songwriting, however, took a bit wider range. “‘Cocaine and Ashes’ was ultimately my tribute to Keith Richards,” he explains. The song title refers to Richards’ once quipping that in addition to cocaine, he snorted his father’s ashes. “I was moved by the statement of love for his father, even at a vulnerable moment.” Richards’ odd kind of tribute is essayed by Farrar in a straight-ahead vein, stately pianos communicating the manner in which it moved Farrar.

The other end of the historical spectrum appears with the song “Sultana,” about a steamship destroyed in an 1865 explosion on the Mississippi River not far from Memphis. “I just came across the name on the Internet, and it resonated with me,” Farrar explains. “It just struck me; it was a sadly powerful name.” It was the worst American maritime disaster, with 1800 of the 2400 passengers lost.

Although the band has come full circle musically, he‘s traveled a distance in terms of what he‘s learned. “It’s always a process. You try to chart a course where inspiration takes you. I’ve learned that no one’s ever going to be happy,” he says, referring to critics. The band’s first album Trace topped many critics’ Top 10 lists when it was released in 1995, and subsequent releases received similar plaudits. So, a Son Volt release comes with high expectations.

The new record doesn’t disappoint. It’s not Trace, but it’s a good, solid set. Its sound reflects the current lineup, he believes. The interplay of Chris Masterson’s electric guitar and Mark Spencer’s pedal steel doesn’t announce itself like some musicians do, as if to say, “This is authentic country music,” but is more subtle in the background, like the comments of a Greek chorus.

There are more austere song structures and arrangements. Is he happy with his current songwriting? “It’s hard to gauge,” he says. “We’ll have to wait three or four years and see if they still sound good live. I like to write about issues.” He isn’t the type of songwriter to write about them directly, but a song like “Sultana,” as the event occurred at the closing of the U.S. Civil War, says something deeper about the period than merely mourning a tragic accident.

In “Roll On,” he sings, “Every Don Quixote has his day,” which might be a comment on American roots music as a whole, which he doesn’t have a lot to say about, but he remarks “everyone can feel like they are fighting windmills. That happens in the music business all the time.” Farrar’s had his share of that— his band having been dropped by Warner Bros in 1999—but he’s still, by and large, able to make music on his own terms.

Why the title American Central Dust? “It’s just a personalized, idiosyncratic thing, I just pulled it out of thin air,” he explains. “Also, we may end up there.” Individually, but also as a country. The album in a way is a snapshot of a moment in time in this country and, if you listen close enough, it’s extremely poignant.

He is enjoying co-headlining shows with the Cowboy Junkies, another group with a history and legacy in indie music. “I have them to thank for bringing Townes Van Zandt to my attention,” he notes. “I’m a student of the last century’s music,” he adds. “This is the culmination of a lot of cross-pollination: old country singers like Chuck Walker and William Stewart. Also, the spirit of seeing a lot of blues performers.”

In the meantime, Farrar is working on a side project with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie; music based on the words of Jack Kerouac, originally for a documentary on the Beat writer. “Kerouac really had his finger on the pulse,” Farrar says. In his own genre, the same might be said of Farrar.

Son Volt co-headlines Snowbird’s Mountain Music Festival with Cowboy Junkies July 10. For a complete schedule visit SnowbirdRC.org

 
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