JAY FARRAR TALKS TO BRIAN WISE
It is now just over 19 years since the split between Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy led to the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, the seminal alt.country band. That schism led Farrar to form Son Volt and further explore the deep vein of Americana that he had already been mining, while Tweedy created Wilco and eventually veered off into an entirely different direction.
As luck would have it, I had just seen Wilco on their recent Australian tour when I caught up with Farrar at the Old Settler’s Festival, just outside of Austin, Texas, to talk about Honky Tonk, his band’s fine new country album. Listening intently to that album and then seeing Son Volt put on a stunning 19-song show at the festival it occurred to me that comparisons are odious and that it is now possible to enjoy both bands equally for what they have to offer.
Honky Tonky, Son Volt’s 7th studio album, returns Farrar, who is inescapably the focal point of his band, to his roots and the sort of music that he was probably listening to during his formative years as a musician. It features a powerful collection of songs set against the backdrop of Mark Spencer and Brad Sarno’s pedal steel guitars and twin fiddle attack from Gary Hunt and Justin Branum, with Farrar eschewing the electric guitar in favour of acoustic. Inspired by the Bakersfield sound, some of the songs sound like instant classics.
Farrar has also been involved in the New Multitudes project, which sets Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to his music and he has also recently published his first book, the evocative memoir Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs.
We are sitting under the shade of an old oak tree out at the Old Settler’s festival site, adjacent to the famous Salt Lick BBQ in the Texas hill country. It is actually an unseasonably cool late April day and Farrar notes ‘some pieces of a rusty old car beneath our feet’ – which in retrospect might have been symbolic.
Congratulations on the new album.
Thank you. It was kind of a culmination of wanting to get back to more of a pedal steel guitar and fiddle aesthetic like was found on the first song on the first solo record – Windfall on the record Trace. It’s kind of getting back to that.
So it’s kind of a link directly to some of the things you have done in the past?
It is. It is kind of a continuum, getting back to that sound but also wanting to explore the twin fiddle sound which we got into on this recording Honky Tonk where there’s the sound of two fiddles going at once. It is a kind of interesting sound that pulls you in. It creates a natural chorus effect because they’re not fretted instruments so even thought they are playing the same note they are a little bit off but it is just an interesting sound. So we got to do that on this record.
Is there any particular reason why you wanted to search for that sound on this record?
I had seen multiple fiddle players on episodes of the Grand Old Opry from the 1950s and early 1960s where they just had some house guys that would join in whatever country music acts were coming through – whether it was Webb Pierce or George Jones or whatever – and it’s just a cool sound when you get a lot of fiddles going together.
I suppose the title of the album, Honky Tonk, is an apt description – though it is not really a honky tonk album – though it does remind people of Gram Parsons.
Yeah, I wanted to acknowledge that country music of the 1950’s and early 1960s – to acknowledge and sort of pay homage to the idea that it was inspirational music to me and that’s basically where I drew the inspiration for writing these songs and I expect to, as we go into the future as well.
Because Gram was doing a similar sort of think with country music, wasn’t he? But giving it his own modern twist.
Certainly I was a follower of The Byrds – that was one of the first bands I was into as well as The Beatles – and then later on when I found out about Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and Gram Parsons – they were definitely mining a similar vein that I had already been on so it was just a nice convergence of finding Gram Parsons along the way, sure.
Well, you are doing the same thing that he did in a way, in terms of bringing it to a different audience.
Yeah, probably. I think Gram was coming from more of maybe a folk background and incorporating elements of rock into what he was doing and I was definitely coming from more of a rock background and incorporating more elements of folk. So it was coming to the same place from different directions.
You’re largely playing acoustic guitar on this album, as opposed to electric guitar.
That’s right. Starting with the previous solo record American Central Dust I just wanted to focus on playing acoustic guitar more and that’s what I’ve done on Honky Tonk as well. There’s always been a duality to Son Volt’s music, where there’s the loud electric stuff and then the counterpoint of the acoustic side and I just wanted to focus on the acoustic side and more of a country sound in particular this time.
What about the pedal steel? You don’t play the pedal steel – you’ve got someone else playing.
[Laughs] The pedal steel guitar was probably the impetus for diving head long into country music for me as of late because I was learning to play the pedal steel guitar and actually playing the pedal steel with a local country band. Throughout that process I just really became immersed in listening to old George Jones, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and a lot of the Bakersfield stuff, Wynn Stewart.
So I became immersed in it but when it came time to have a pedal steel player there are a lot, lot better pedal steel players out there so I had Mark Spencer and Brad Sarno play on the record.
It is a daunting instrument in that there are so many pedal and string combinations but that’s what I find intriguing about it. You can kind of just pick your own tuning and pick your own string to pedal combinations and call it your own and that’s kind of what I’ve done and that’s also what Mark Spencer has done.
It’s like having another voice in the band, isn’t it?
It is. It’s an evocative instrument: you make it growl and you can make it weep.
Sometimes I hear the songs and I think Willie Nelson could do a great version of ‘Seawall,’ for example. They are almost in that classic country mode.
Yes, I kind of embraced the lexicon of country music from that time period. In a lot of ways, lyrically, this recording is more thematic approach. I just embraced that heartbreak subject matter that you find in that music and was definitely a big part of the culture at the time.
You avoided that in the past, didn’t you?
To some degree, yes. I felt like putting the words heart or love in a song has been done so many times, and been done really well by a lot of people. So I figured it was best to stay away from that but ultimately you find that those are such universal themes that you can’t avoid them.
I can imagine other people listening to this album and saying we have to do that song, which is a high compliment to your songwriting.
Thank you. I appreciate your thoughts on that. I would be too intimidated to try to write a song for Willie Nelson.
How long did it take you to write the songs? I believe it didn’t take you very long.
The songs came about relatively quickly. I think it was probably a two-week period where I just got into a writing mode and it was relatively fluid at that point. That’s the way I usually write – in short bursts of writing.
That’s amazing – two weeks!
Yeah, but it took all the rest of the year to come up with the ideas and put it together and even longer than that for it to come. So it’s a long process when you go from the writing part all the way to the final mix and mastering.
Were you listening to anybody in particular before you recorded the album? Although I suppose that can be a dangerous thing, cant’ it?
I can be but in this case, as we were talking about before, since I was learning to play the pedal steel guitar I was listening to a lot of Buck Owens and a lot of Wynn Stewart. Those two guys in particular just brought more of a rock sensibility and rock ‘n’ roll intensity to what they were doing and that’s aligned with what I’m doing coming from more of a rock background. I learned a lot listening to those guys.
Can you talk about The New Multitudes project that you were involved in last year?
Going back to about 1995 I think there was a request that had come through the record company I was on at the time asking if i wanted to work with Billy Bragg on a project using Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. That didn’t happen at the time but years later I was able to stop by the Woody Guthrie archives and meet Nora Guthrie and it was just a great experience of being able to go to the archives and see the amazing, creative output of Woody Guthrie – his artwork, his words – amazing stuff.
Finally, you have a book out, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs.
Essentially, since I am a songwriter and not a writer of books this is the first I have written besides songs or very long postcards. I had some time to do it so I got into it. it is essentially just short stories, vignettes, anecdotes, non-fiction prose. it is something that I just fell into. I find that it is good to do, just write. I have never written journals or anything like that but it’s like cognitive medicine: you are able to take stock of where you are at and by doing that you are able to figure out where you need to go.
Was there something that prompted you to want to write?
Nothing in particular other than just having the time to do it. We had set aside some time to tour for the New Multitudes project and some of that didn’t happen so I just had time so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll write and just see what happens.’ The natural inclination was to do these short pieces because that’s more along the lines of what I do in writing songs – very specific experiences.
There’s no reason why a really good songwriter, used to writing lyrics, wouldn’t be able to write prose. You’ve obviously got a talent for describing things.
Well, fortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of pre-conceived thought going into it: I just did it and it was just sort of a visceral thing and it worked out. I don’t think I could sit down and try to write a novel. So, it was definitely focusing on short pieces – that was what made sense to me.
I think Steve Earle said that he was more worried about the reception for his books than his albums.
I can see that. I didn’t worry about it. I am used to putting things out and I know there are going to be some people like it and some have other things to say about it.