Jay Farrar

Searching for Balance

Music Features Jay Farrar
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“Our mainstay, our true companion on those road trips…was the music of Jay Farrar. That voice, those words. His music went to the heart of the heart of the country we traveled through, and fed our imagination…” —Andrew Smith and Alex Smith, filmmakers of The Slaughter Rule

Not since the mid 1970s, when Bruce Springsteen roared through the streets and into the nation’s imagination, has a songwriter written about life on the road and the American landscape—both the concrete and metaphoric scenery—with more insight, honesty and passion than Jay Farrar.

Of course, Farrar’s fan base would probably fit inside a couple of Springsteen stadium shows, and the only person who refers to him as The Boss is the lone volunteer who runs Farrar’s new label, Act/Resist Records. But Farrar and Springsteen do share a vision that transcends popularity contests or their musical differences.

Springsteen’s ode to the road is often misconstrued as a birthright—Born to Run’s massive popularity as de facto proof of our American right to hit the road when trouble brews. However, Nebraska offers a quiet but forceful reminder that trouble tends to tag along.

Farrar’s vision is a mixed bag of opportunity and limitations, too—an open road at the end of which is bleak knowledge: as often as you find redemption, “you’re gonna find pain,” Farrar sings on “Out On the Road” from Terroir Blues, his most recent release. But, as the old saw goes, whatever doesn’t kill you….

“You get to experience a different way of life on the road,” Farrar said by phone from his home in St. Louis. “It’s usually life intensified. You’re meeting a lot of people that you wouldn’t meet otherwise, you’re finding yourself in a lot of different situations that you wouldn’t be in normally, so you’re forced to sort of question a lot of things that you encounter, and I think you grow stronger from being in that situation.”

That inquisitive attitude has informed Farrar’s songwriting from its first notes, resulting in a bittersweet body of work that provides a virtual road map over the last decade-plus of the country’s ethos (not always a pretty picture). Terroir Blues, Farrar’s second full-length solo record and the first released through his new label, maintains his critical approach while sonically combining elements from both his early career and Sebastopol, his first solo effort, in 12 classic Farrar songs, four alternate takes and seven brief musical interludes.

Farrar used a set lineup of musicians and recorded live in the studio as much as possible, two key differences from Sebastopol. With touring mate Mark Spencer (on piano, guitars and lap steel), Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, St. Louis alt-country fixture John Horton on guitar and bass, and ex-Son Volt pedal steel wizard Eric Heywood, the songs on Terroir Blues have a stark, spacious feel compared to Sebastopol. Apropos of the new record’s subject matter and tenor, the songs seem to spread out in front of the listener like wide-open vistas to the horizon.

“Working with Jay is a pretty open situation,” said Spencer, the Blood Oranges guitarist who has spent the last couple of years touring with Farrar in a relaxed duo configuration. “It’s pretty rare that he says, ‘Hey, I don’t like that.’ The whole process is very … organic.”

The full-band cuts, like “Hanging On to You,” “Heart On the Ground,” and “All of Your Might,” benefit most from the live approach and crackle with crisp intensity. Other compositions feature Farrar paired only with Spencer or Heywood, each seemingly trying to out-awe the other in creating sinuous, atmospheric lines around Farrar’s warm baritone. The return of Heywood on “Hard Is the Fall,” “California,” and “Dent County” should warm the hearts of die-hard Son Volt fans. I’d been away from pedal steel guitar for a long time and I really like Eric’s playing,” Farrar said by way of explanation. “His strong point is that he’s able to walk in, hear a song a couple of times and then play an amazing part.”

In keeping with Farrar’s experimental side, two songs add accompaniment from instruments he hadn’t worked with before. Janice Reiman’s rich cello is the perfect contrapuntal for Farrar’s baritone guitar lines on the haunting ode to the transitory nature of societies, “Cahokian,” while Lou Winer’s flute trails along with Farrar’s acoustic when the two go “Out On the Road.”

Farrar also placed six interludes throughout the record and dubbed them “Space Junk.” Ranging in length from 30 seconds to just under one minute, Farrar molded the backward-sounding instrumentals using a synthesizer, a piano, and an electric saz, normally an acoustic wind instrument from Turkey. The resulting pieces are clearly reminiscent of the Beatles’ Revolver, a long-time favorite of Farrar’s and an inspirational touchstone for these.

“There was this sort of duality going into it,” Farrar said of Terroir Blues. “Most of the songs with vocals would be given the live approach, and then there are these backward segments that use a sampler—sort of the opposite end of the spectrum.”

In satisfying Farrar’s dual inclinations, the resulting musical balance reflected the subject matter of the record, clearly encapsulated in the thought-provoking title. Farrar came across the French term “terroir” while reading about wine; the fact that there was no direct English translation piqued his interest.

Roughly translated, “terroir” suggests a soil that exists in a perfect balance between nature—sun, air, weather—and man over generations of cultivation. Independent of the natural processes or man’s labor, the soil loses that delicate balance and its utility.

It was the conspicuous lack of metaphoric terroir that Farrar encountered in his travels that served as a catalyst for many of the record’s lyrics. In “California,” Farrar marvels at the state’s natural bounty and the shanty towns that line the streets in downtown Los Angeles, like the Okies of the Dust Bowl era in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. On the distorted blues-meets-Revolver “Fool King’s Gold,” Farrar takes aim at what he calls “hype” situations, from the international stage—he said the purported end of the Afghanistan campaign and talk of impending war with Iraq seeped into his writing last summer—to the mundane daily artifice of consumer society.

“I don’t agree with a lot of aspects of American culture, from SUVs to sprawling suburbia,” Farrar said. “It’s all kind of maddening, and something you’re confronted by daily.

“I’m taking some liberties using the word [terroir], but I felt that it represented some things that I’ve been thinking about, like where I’m at, where I come from and all that.”

As usual with Farrar, it’s weighty stuff, at times threatening to overwhelm the listener with a Hieronymus Bosch-like vision of a shallow, narcissistic society doomed to choke on its own affluence. But even amid the densest bleakness, there is hope in Farrar’s music. Significantly, “Out On the Road” best illustrates why all is not lost: “Intensify the world / Revolutions from within / Take everything in stride / Storied ghosts you share / Out on the road,” he sings after a vintage Faces-era, Ron Wood-style, 12-string acoustic riff, reminding us that a critical look at the world will yield a different mindset (a revolutionary act in itself). That will keep us from being overwhelmed by the mind-numbing barrage of meaningless trivia aimed daily at us, alerting us to our past in hope that we might avoid some familiar pitfalls.

Some things, of course, can’t be avoided. The passing of his father last summer after a long illness was a different kind of journey Farrar coped with on Terroir Blues. Two songs specifically address Jim “Pops” Farrar’s legacy: “Hard Is the Fall” and the heartbreaking piano-and-pedal-steel eulogy, “Dent County.” The musically inclined merchant marine and Korean War veteran made peace with his family before his death, and the emotional impact permeates much of his son’s record.

“I started preparing songs for this album several months before he died, so it was something that was omnipresent at that point,” Farrar said.

For some listeners the philosophical subject matter, as well as Farrar’s talent at incorporating historical facts, literary allusions and metaphors into a cogent whole and then transmitting it through beautiful melodies and formidable playing makes his music virtually transcendent. Spencer, like others, likens Farrar’s lyrics to poetry: “You have to bring your own experience and your own emotion into his lyrics, and that’s the only way you can really get inside them,” said Spencer. “They’re not ultra-specific, which I like.”

Others feel alienated from Farrar’s music because of those same traits. Since the release of Trace in 1995, Farrar’s sales have declined with every album. There are logistical reasons for that (little or no label support post-Trace being a primary culprit), but a contingent of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt fans have quit going along with Farrar’s mostly acoustic, impressionistic and experimental approach. Farrar takes the diplomatic approach and counsels patience.

“Playing acoustically is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he said, “and I’ve been doing it for a couple of years, so it’s only a matter of time before I get back to trying electric guitar.”

So look at Terroir Blues as a stop along the way. Few writers can wed such insights with such beautiful melodies and gorgeous arrangements. As Farrar suggests on “All of Your Might,” “search out the new / see where it takes you”—which sounds like solid advice from someone who knows a thing or two about that musical road.