Catching Up With: Jay Farrar

Music Features Jay Farrar

On both a creative and commercial level, 1995 was a big year for alt-country—the launch of No Depression magazine, Emmylou Harris working with Daniel Lanois, Johnny Cash being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the veritable parade of classic albums that emerged by the likes of Whiskeytown, The Jayhawks, Tarnation, Scud Mountain Boys, and the Waco Brothers were bookended by the debut albums from the two factions that emerged upon the dissolution of the beloved Uncle Tupelo in 1994.

However, while Wilco, the new project from Jeff Tweedy, gained some early traction on both college and triple-A radio with the release of A.M. in March of ‘95, it was former frontman Jay Farrar who had the last laugh of the year when Sire ambushed the fall market with Trace from his own outfit Son Volt. The original lineup of the group was comprised of former Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, who had left the group shortly after the release of March 16-20, 1992, along with the brothers Boquist, string player Dave and bassist Jim. And if Wilco had failed to come across as properly defined upon the arrival of A.M., Trace was a direct hit for fans of Tupelo, many of whom felt that it was Farrar and his wood-rich voice steeped in both George Jones and Iggy Pop, embodied the true spirit of his old band. The album would close out 1995 at the top of many critics’ best-of lists, as the album’s key single—the Stones-in-flannel rocker “Drown”—peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks list.

In commemoration of its 20th anniversary, Farrar—in conjunction with the archive masters at Rhino Records—has put together a most definitive deluxe edition of Trace that expands the record into a generous two-disc set. The special edition nearly doubles the length of the original LP with demos and contains a bonus CD featuring the majority of a killer set from New York City’s The Bottom Line in February of 1996. This fall, the singer and a trio version of Son Volt will be hitting the road to perform songs from Trace and prove that two decades ain’t got nothing on the power of those 10 classic original tunes capped off by a closing cover of Ron Wood’s solo nugget “Mystifies Me.”

Farrar took the time out for a quick chat with Paste about the impact of his best year ever in a time when the lines between alternative and commercial country music are blurrier than ever before with the success of acts like Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves. Just don’t ask him for his opinion on new music; he sticks strictly to the old stuff.

Paste: Trace came out when I was in college, and I remember being quite swept up in the anticipation of its release in the press at the time. And as someone just getting his feet wet in the appreciation of country music, especially of the honky-tonk variation, Son Volt was definitely the hard sell that closed the deal for me and I’m sure many other fans, as well.
Farrar: Honky-tonk was exactly the sound I wanted to explore with Trace. That aesthetic, which meant having a pedal steel player paired with a fiddle player, which is what I got in one guy, Dave Boquist. When I go back I think we sounded good. We sounded visceral, but not real polished. And I think that’s the exact way a rock band should sound.

Paste: The album was also released during one of the most important years for the genre they call “alt-country,” for lack of a better handle. Thinking back, 1995 was such a major period for the art.
Farrar: It definitely was, and it was obviously a good time to be making and recording new music. Especially looking back at it in retrospect, in a lot of ways we were all kinda still riding Nirvana’s wave. We were around before Nirvana, but it was like a giant tidal wave when they hit, man. And there were good things that came out of it, clearly. There was this big creative burst when a lot of different artists were getting signed to all these deals.

Paste: Which is how Uncle Tupelo got scooped up by Sire at the time…
Farrar: Yeah. The band was around and we had a deal [with Rockville Records] at the time, but there was no way we would have made that jump to the major without that aftershock of the Nirvana phenomenon.

Paste: So having already been a Sire artist, was releasing Trace on the label pretty much a given?
Farrar: Well, it was predetermined it would be on Warner, correct. But that didn’t necessarily make it any easier to record the album. When the band went their separate ways, unfortunately I had a girlfriend, a job and a credit card, which is basically how Trace got paid for. Essentially the way it worked was that you paid up front and then you get reimbursed later on, so without a way to pay for it, nothing can be done. Back in those days before people had home studios you had to book time in a place and all that.

Paste: Did having to cover the record in that way inspire any kind of creativity in terms of working within the budget constraints?
Farrar: To a certain extent, yeah. I have a vivid memory of driving my wife’s car, I don’t know if I even had a car at the time [laughs], which was a Honda Civic hatchback. I had that thing loaded with amplifiers and a whole drum kit and a bunch of guitars and drove it from St. Louis to Minneapolis to record Trace. And I pulled a trailer with that car, too [laughs]. More amps and stuff put in a small U-Haul trailer.

Paste: Quite a testament to that Civic hatchback!
Farrar: That’s the real imagery of rock ‘n’ roll, right?

Paste: It’s true, it really is. Especially in the context of the whole Minutemen “Get In the Van” ethos.
Farrar: Uncle Tupelo once opened up for fIREHOSE. Bands like them and the Minutemen were certainly inspiring to us, especially in the context of that do-it-yourself aesthetic.

Paste: Did you ever pay attention to any of the country music happening on a mainstream or commercial level back then with acts like Alan Jackson and George Strait?
Farrar: Not back then, but I would say when I hear either Alan Jackson or George Strait today it sounds pretty decent to my ears. But at the time, I was not listening to anything like that. I was listening to a lot of George Jones, Merle Haggard, a lot of Buck Owens. Kris Kristofferson. Stuff like that. And I still do.

Paste: Kristofferson, yeah. Especially those early albums like The Silver Tongued Devil and I and Jesus Was A Capricorn.
Farrar: I had the chance to meet Kris Kristofferson at a festival up on the Hudson not too long ago. And I don’t know if you ever heard that story of where he supposedly flew a helicopter down to Johnny Cash’s backyard and Kris pitched the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to him and then Johnny recorded it. So I was like, “Alright, here’s Kris Kristofferson and I’m going to ask him that question.” And I did, I went up to him and asked him was that apocryphal or was it really a true story? He said, “Yeah, I really did. I landed the helicopter and pitched to Johnny. But it wasn’t ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ it was…” And he said the song but I was so amazed by standing there and talking to him that I forgot the song that he said [laughs]. He handed out the Holy Grail and I forgot it.

Paste: You are based in St. Louis, but you had been living in New Orleans for a bit of time before recording Trace, right?
Farrar: Yeah, I have been living in St. Louis for the last 25 years, but did this short stint in New Orleans around 1994, 1995. So I was doing an incredible amount of driving during this time, going from New Orleans up to St. Louis to pick up equipment and then all the way up Minneapolis. It was a liberating time for me, both personally and creatively. I had a lot of time to do a lot of reflective thinking and come up with these songs that made up Trace.

Paste: I can only imagine the amount of music you were listening to during those drives.
Farrar: There was a radio station that I would tap into which is where the reference to switching over to A.M. on “Windfall” comes from. I was listening to a lot of A.M. radio and the country music stations. There was one in particular in New Orleans called the Road Gang and it was primarily listened to by truckers. So I would tune that in and in doing so helped reinforce the idea of exploring old country music on Trace.

Paste: Are you a fan of any of the new country music out now like Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves or Eric Church?
Farrar: I wish I could comment, but I’m primarily drawn to the old stuff, including the stuff I haven’t necessarily heard yet. I finally got a vinyl situation going where I’m listening to a lot more records. I had packed all that stuff away. I was guilty of being an iPod/iPhone guy based on the ease of operation. But when it comes down to it, I prefer listening to vinyl. I have a 78 player now as well, and recently picked up some old blues and country sets.

Paste: Nice. What kind of stuff did you score?
Farrar: I’m continuing to build on my Hank Williams collection. I have about 15 or 20 of those. And I was lucky enough to come across some old blues 78s, which are not that easy to come by. Stuff like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and very early B.B. King.

Paste: Speaking of vintage, I’d love to hear more about that Webster-Chicago amplifier you used during the recording of Trace and featured on the front cover. You said in the liner notes to the reissue you employed the Keith Richards practice of utilizing a low wattage amp to achieve the sound you have on the album?
Farrar: That’s definitely how we got a lot of our sound with that amp pictured on the cover. I don’t remember exactly what the wattage is on that, like 15 watts or something like that. It was originally an extension speaker for an old wire recorder. It wasn’t even really made to be an amplifier, but it’s got this really, really punchy low wattage sound that I felt captured the essence of what I was going for with these songs.

Paste: Where did you pick up the amp?
Farrar: I think it was at a music store in Los Angeles. Someone had already done the modification and put a guitar jack in it, but they left the old-timey wire recorder extension thing intact. I’ve seen the actual Webster-Chicago wire recorder in thrift stores before. Not that I have any wire tapes around [laughs]. I don’t know if you’re a Woody Guthrie fan, but somebody had found some old wire recordings of his and on those tapes was the Webster-Chicago logo. They were a leader in that kind of recording back then.

Paste: By the way, the sound quality of that Bottom Line show on the second disc of the deluxe Trace is magnificent.
Farrar: It was the only one that had tapes which survived. I found these tapes in management’s storage and dusted them off. They were these huge oversized tapes that would use this specific Dolby noise reduction. In fact, it took a while to find a machine to play those tapes. But I had a feeling they would sound good, because they were recorded direct to analog. I think the show was actually recorded using the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck, which was kicking around New York City at the time. And we had a respected engineer, John Harris, on the job. When I was looking through the track sheets in the truck, I could see he was working on some pretty serious stuff in there.

Paste: The Stones seem to have played a big role in inspiring much of Trace, especially in the case of that great Ron Wood cover you guys do at the end of the record. Are you partial to the Woody era of the group?
Farrar: Actually, I’m more of a fan of Mick Taylor. Taken within the context of the Stones, I felt like his guitar playing was both complementary and also a contrast to the type of playing Keith Richards did. Ron Wood I think was great in the Faces and those solo albums of his as well. That song we do, “Mystifies Me,” came out of a rehearsal for Trace and Dave Boquist just pulled out a copy of I’ve Got My Own Album To Do and I wasn’t really too familiar with that record at the time. But that song just blew me away. We didn’t originally intend to record it or include it, but it was a song we did at the end of the session to celebrate the end of the recording. So ultimately it fit like a missing piece to Trace.

Paste: And now you are going out on the road in support of the 20th anniversary of Trace?
Farrar: We’re going out this week, in fact. I felt like it would be the best way to commemorate this Trace reissue would be to celebrate these songs in a more elemental, stripped down fashion. That means we’re playing as a trio, and we’re reuniting with Eric Heywood on pedal steel, he was the guy who played on Trace and continuing with Gary Hunt, who plays fiddle and also steel guitar, so there will be dual steel guitars going on, which will create a cool wall of sound, for sure [laughs].

Paste: Are you going to be playing the album straight through?
Farrar: We will do all the songs from the album, but not necessarily in order. We have them in groups on the set list, kind of in order of specific tunings and instrumentation.

Paste: Will Son Volt be going forward as a trio from this point?
Farrar: It remains to be seen. I’ve written a couple of new songs that are more acoustic-oriented for a mellow-type record. But also I’ve written songs that sit within the framework of a classic Son Volt record. I think it all depends on what the song calls for. I don’t have any set plans for it to be a trio. It will be whatever it needs to be.

Paste: Well, hats off to you in whatever direction you go next in the studio, man. One thing I’m sure many fans appreciate about you is how true you’ve remained to the country roots of Uncle Tupelo in just about all the work you’ve done since the split.
Farrar: I’ve gone in some directions, but I always go back to the music that originally inspired me. That more unadulterated style of country music. Everybody has their own definition of what country music is and what it means to them. Certainly there’s enough out there for everybody.

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