An Americana music pioneer looks to the past while moving ahead.
By Steve Houk
The rise of Americana music wouldn’t have happened as easily or as profoundly without Jay Farrar in the mix.
The Illinois-borne singer/songwriter teamed up with Jeff Tweedy in the 80’s to form the now legendary Uncle Tupelo, a band that defined the blend of country/western and harder rock that was one facet of the burgeoning Americana sound. After they broke up in the late 80’s, with Farrar forming Son Volt and Tweedy starting Wilco, Farrar would continue that memorable mashup of C & W and garage rock on nearly all of his Son Volt records over the last 20-plus years.
Until now. Farrar’s most recent record, Notes Of Blue, was inspired by the blues and the unique alternate guitar tunings of artists like Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Nick Drake. It was a unique way for Farrar to delve into the roots of the music he grew up with and that has so deeply influenced his path. It’s still pure Son Volt, thanks to Farrar’s unmistakable vocals, but with a bit of a different edge.
“I think it was the realization, and this probably occurred over many years, that the blues were such a foundational part of early country music,” Farrar, 50, said on a break from his current Son Volt tour. “And I’ve always been around country music here and there, so I think that realization that the blues was such an integral part of early country music was a catalyst to dive deeper into the blues.”
“There were a couple of ideas I wanted to focus on for this recording,” Farrar said. “One of them being concentrating more on the finger picking method, that style of guitar, and having played pedal steel guitar in a side band gave me the experience to give it a go. I’d never really done too much finger picking style guitar on recording. And you know that’s also a common thread between some of these guys that were the source of the alternate tuning, Fred McDowell, Skip James, Nick Drake, there’ll all known for the finger picking guitar.”
“Another idea I wanted to focus on was really getting back to playing electric guitar. I have not played electric guitar over the last several Son Volt records, so this was an opportunity to focus on electric guitar. And as part of that, as part of passing the 20 year Son Volt milestone, I pulled out the old amplifier that’s pictured on the front of the first solo record Trace, it’s an old Webster Chicago amplifier that I felt just had the right aesthetic for this group of songs.”
Farrar’s musical family upbringing and his time living in St. Louis are both huge influences on his musical foundation, and so when he met Tweedy, Farrar already had a base on which to draw from, as did his new collaborator. Between their own individual roots and the current music out there, a unique musical style was born.
“I think it was more or less organic, I think there was sort of that convergence and that realization that the music that filtered down through your folks ultimately clicked and made sense, and coalesced with, at that time, alot of the music we were soaking up, which was punk rock and music coming from East Coast and West Coast. When Uncle Tupelo was starting out, I can hear a bit more angst, the result of alot of the stuff I was listening to, from Husker Du, to Meat Puppets, to The Clash or whatever. I think we probably came to the realization about the same time, although I was in bands before I met Jeff, with my older brothers, started playing out when I was like 11, 12, at parties and at school. I think even at that time we were playing some Buck Owens songs at 11 or 12, so the country element was there early on. And the rest was more garage-based, like The Yardbirds, we did a bunch of covers of theirs, it was blues based as well.”
So as Jay Farrar continues to make memorable music, he appreciates the challenges that trying out new styles and sounds presents.
“I felt it opened up a whole new creative process, you know you’re kind of going down a different path or road you haven’t been down before. It opens things up, and this time around I felt like it was a chance to connect with icons and heroes, I always felt like there was certain mystique attached. I just took it as a challenge and I wanted to learn those tunings and see what was there.”
Son Volt performs Tuesday April 11th at 930 Club, 815 V St NW, Washington, DC 20001. For tickets, click here.