Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on Day of the Doug

Music Features Son Volt
Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on Day of the Doug

Leave it to animated Family Guy father Peter Griffin to always find the perfect cutaway-gag solution to whatever trouble he bumbles into. As in one of the show’s most surreal skits“Yikes! Looks like I need a distraction!,” he yelps in the first of several similar recurring gags relied on over the seasons. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Conway Twitty!” And yes, the show brazenly cuts to grainy old live footage of the country legend crooning an entire mournful tune, with the Griffin clan, afterwards, sitting calmly at their dinner table, all problems from three minutes earlier somehow resolved.

Jay Farrar admits the joke is still unusually hilarious. And he’s not above whipping up an attention-diverting distraction himself, especially during our grim universal bete noire of late, the pandemic lockdown and ensuing aftermath that seemed to consume everyone’s thoughts since March of 2020. Only his took the rowdy, ribald form of Day of the Doug, Son Volt’s new Doug Sahm tribute album, featuring fresh takes on a dozen lesser-known chestnuts from the late Sir Douglas Quintet/Texas Tornados maestro, like “”Float Away,” “Poison Love,” “”Keep Your Soul,” “Huggin’ Thin Air,” and the man’s shrewdly self-referential “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows.” Sahm, of course, never quit show business despite many disappointments, and was still touring with The Texas Tornados on November 18, 1999, when he passed away from heart disease in his Taos, N.M., hotel room bed. “So Family Guy is not far off, I guess,” Farrar, 56, chortles of his pet project, a true labor of fanboy love.

And his own personal coronavirus diversion. “Because that’s essentially what we were going for, as well as looking to mix things up a bit—it’s a completely different process to do a tribute record than it is to do a regular Son Volt record, where you’re kind of building the whole foundation from the ground up. Whereas when you’re covering someone’s songs—especially someone like Doug, who’s been such an inspiration—there’s just an element of fun that goes with it, and you’re kind of following a template along the way, and just kind of adding your own elements and tweaking things here and there.”

The set’s intro and outro are actual lively phone messages Sahm himself left on Farrar’s answering machine, which he has always saved and treasured. And currently, Son Volt—with ex Bottle Rockets guitarist John Horton recently replacing departing axeman Chris Frame in the lineup—is on the road again, backing Day of the Doug and the belated 25th anniversary of the group’s first post-Uncle Tupelo disc, Trace from 1995. And it’s good timing, with all the crazy news headlines darkening our days, because we certainly need a distraction. So without further ado, Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jay Farrar!

Paste: So instead of penning an entire dark pandemic album that you’d then have to go out and sing every night, you chose to dig into the past. Why Doug Sahm?

Jay Farrar: You know, Doug was always an inspiration, and he’s an icon in that he represented his own way. To me, he’s like a larger-than-life character out of a Jack Kerouac novel or something, someone who was a child prodigy on steel guitar, so he did his thing with Hank Williams, when they’d share the stage, then he was in Texas doing his R&B thing, and then he goes to San Francisco and kind of hangs out in the Haight Ashbury and does that, and then he moves back to Texas. So just his musical journeys along the way are what interested me, and what really was the impetus for putting this record together also was realizing that…well, there was one Mercury compilation that I was pointed to, you know, thinking, “Oh, this is all of Doug’s best songs,” and Doug’s vinyl records were extremely hard to find—I only had a couple of ’em. And then more recently, I came across some stuff online, which was The Complete Doug Sahm Mercury Masters, and I was able to hear all his stuff. And I felt like, “Wow! There’s a lot more quality music of Doug’s to be heard!” And there was a lot, and I wound up pulling songs like “What About Tomorrow,” “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows”—those songs had a strong pop sensibility that maybe subjectively, the person who had put some of those earlier Sir Douglas Quintet compilations together, maybe they were looking for more of the oddball stuff, where Doug was mixing jazz and rock or whatever. But I was kind of drawn to Doug’s pop sensibility from the late 1960s stuff.

Paste: Because obviously, “She’s About a Mover” almost demands to be done. But you were like, “Nope.”

Farrar: Yeah. And that was part of it, especially with Brian Henneman from The Bottle Rockets and I, we were Doug fans going way back, and the Bottle Rockets did a Doug Sahm tribute record, and what they did was kind of the first layer of Doug Sahm, and this Son Volt recording is kind of about peeling back the second layer and finding out about even lesser-known songs. But ultimately, both tribute records kind of complement each other, I think.

Paste: In 2021, Chris Frame left, and was replaced by an actual Bottle Rocket, John Herndon. Was that an easy transition?

Farrar: Yeah, you know, Chris had to tend to some things, and John is a friend and an acquaintance, and he actually played on the Son Volt record [2005’s] Okemah and the Melody of Riot. He played some slide guitar, and he played some bass guitar on a solo record I did before that. So we have a long history together, so John is kind of the common thread between these two records, that’s for sure.

Paste: When and where did you first meet Doug? And how often did you bump into him over the years?

Farrar: I first met him at the Uncle Tupelo Anodyne sessions at Cedar Creek Studios in Austin, Texas. And that kind of came about just kicking around ideas, like who could we hook up with and record a song with while we were in Austin, Texas? And Doug’s name came up, and Joe Ely’s name came up, and we wound up recording with both of those guys. And obviously, we crossed paths with Doug subsequent to that, and whenever Son Volt was coming through Austin, Doug would show up and sing a song or two and then ride off into the sunset. But Doug was great at keeping in touch on the phone, and that was almost like his form of social media at the time. And subsequently, there’s that answering machine phone message that found a home on this record.

Paste: It’s so weird to look at all these pictures of him in the ’50s, sporting shades and known as Little Doug.

Farrar: Ha! Yeah, right! He had his persona figured out early on, I guess. Little Doug, wearing the cowboy hat and the cowboy boots and all that. So in a lot of ways, he never really lost that—one of the last records he made was called The Return of Wayne Douglas, which was his country music alter ego, and again, that recording was sort of a touchstone for this tribute record, because had some of these great songs on that one, as well.

Paste: And if you look at his history, he was associated with the late Freddy Fender long before they hooked up in The Texas Tornados. And the same for Flaco Jimenez.

Farrar: And one thing I didn’t realize until recently was that Doug was kind of instrumental in reviving Freddy’s career. Doug did that version of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” and that sort of revived interest in Freddy. And Freddy exploded after that. So there definitely was a cool synergy between those two guys. So Freddy definitely had his time in the limelight.

Paste: Gram Parsons has a whole Joshua Tree mythology surrounding his death. But Doug Sahm’s death in a hotel just seems so random.

Farrar: You’re right. But I guess that’s the way that a lot of folks go, you know? I think Charlie Rich was in a similar way, just driving his car down State Road 55 down in Louisiana. But with Doug, it was definitely a shock and a surprise, but I think ultimately, he was out there doing what he wanted to do, and he often spent a lot of time driving from Austin to L.A. and back, doing what he wanted to do. And I think the music industry, in general—and especially in terms of country music—it’s almost a dying art form. But Doug was definitely a main proponent of country music and the real stuff.

Paste: Is that a Hammond B-3 or a Farfisa on your album, anchoring the keyboard parts?

Farrar: Uhhh, more of a Farfisa sound was a lot of what was used. And that’s what [Texas Tornados’] Augie [Meyers] used primarily, right? But we won’t tell anybody, but yeah, we were using a digital keyboard where you can just dial that stuff up. But sometimes those Farfisas would break down, so it has its upside.

Paste: Your cover of “Beautiful Texas Sunshine” kind of summarizes Texas as just a completely different animal.

Farrar: Yes. And I think you hit on it, and that’s definitely what Doug was trying to put across in that song. And yes, I have spent a lot of time in Texas myself, especially in the early days of just going down to SXSW—it definitely had that vibe that you could understand, because it was always usually in the late winter when you would go down there, and everything’s just perfect. And Doug was trying to tell us that a long time ago—that song is from the early ’70s, I think. And that one is real pedal steel, for sure—it just has some effects on it. We just decided to throw a curveball in there, and instead of doing just a straight-up pedal steel sound, we decided to throw some delay and some other stuff on there, and it just makes it a bit more trippy. And I don’t think Doug would object to that!

Paste: “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop chasing Rainbows” has got some interesting lines, like “I tried so hard in the record business.”

Farrar: Yeah. And that line, in particular, resonated with me, and that’s literally what drew me to the song—me and everyone else in the music business can relate to that. And it sounds like he had some good people to lean on—Kris Kristofferson Is name-checked in that song. And like Kris said, “Don’t waste time if they don’t want to listen.” He had some great people to lean on.

Paste: How did you come up with the great, Posada-Stark album cover art?

Farrar: The artwork cover idea was just sort of born out of the title, The Day of the Doug. It was just sort of a play on—obviously—the Day of the Dead. But I have an old friend named Chuck Wagner, and when it came time for the cover concept, I thought, “Hmm. I know a guy who’s been drawing skulls since he was in grade-school, so I gave Chuck a call and he did a great job. He got the concept, sure. And then the back cover is sort of an homage to one of the Doug Sahm records, where they have little cartoon characters on the back.

Paste: And you still have your own Transmit Sound label, right?

Farrar: I do, yep. And it’s pretty low profile, but it’s great. It’s essentially just a stamp that goes on the record. There’s no me sitting in an office, fielding phone calls, or doing all those old-school record company things. But it affords me the freedom to do whatever, whatever I feel is creatively necessary. So in that respect, it’s great.

Paste: So prior to this, how did the pandemic go down for you?

Farrar: I mean, the idea of doing this tribute record kind of came about while we were just getting out and starting up touring again in 2021.So I suppose that there was a sort of celebratory element of energy that goes along with just getting back out on the road, and luckily we were able to capture that on tape. Because we essentially did this recording over five days in April of 2021, just right before going out.

Paste: I can’t believe it’s been over three years now since Covid. And people seem to forget just how dark it was.

Farrar: It was. I don’t want to sidetrack the conversation, because there’s all this stuff sort of lurking in the clouds in the distance about a whole new variant. But we’ll talk about that later—we don’t need to get into all that now.

Paste: While you were out on tour, did you go, “Hey! Let’s go visit that place nearby that Doug frequented!” Did you do research on him that way?

Farrar: Well, not specifically, although when I was in Austin last, I did make a detour to go see Doug Sahm Hill, a little place they dedicated to him, which is a hill, actually, a place that you can walk up to in a park there. So now I can cross that off my bucket list. And they were still working on a bench, but there better be one put in. Because if a person walks up to the top of Doug Sahm Hill and then can’t get mellow?

Paste: And in terms of penning new material, I once asked the late Guy Clark how difficult it was, every year that goes by, full of new songs set in copy write stone, to somehow come up with an original one. And he said, “It’s the hardest job in the world.”

Farrar: Ha! It is true. I mean, even if you were a new band, just starting out, trying to pick a new name that hasn’t already been used, five times over? Fuggedaboudit! And yeah, the same goes with songs, and going back to the pandemic that you mentioned, at that point we had been talking about doing a 25-year anniversary tour of the first Son Volt record,

Trace, but the pandemic did not allow that to happen. So people had been asking about a Trace tour a lot, but the pandemic kind of put it in perspective, like, “I don’t know if we can wait on this. Let’s just get out there and do it.”

Paste: So what’s next on the agenda after a Day of the Doug tour? What’s Plan B?

Farrar: Pretty much gonna be focused on Plan A, which is touring for the next several months and taking these songs out, both songs from the Doug Sahm tribute record and, like I said, we’ll be doing songs from the first Son Volt record Trace, in order.

Paste: But did you hear back from anyone in Doug’s family about this project? Like, “Hey—nice job!”

Farrar: Yes, as a matter of fact. Through both of his sons, one way or another. Andrew DuPlantis, our bass player—who sings two of the songs, “Float Away” and “Juan Mendoza”—both he and one of Doug’s sons, (drummer) Shandon, they were the backing band in The Meat Puppets for awhile, and then subsequently, the other son, (guitarist) Shawn, called up to say Hello. So yeah, we have made contact! So with regard to classic country music and the real stuff, I’m doing my part. I’m learning to play steel guitar and carry on the tradition any way I can, because it is almost going towards extinction. But we do digress, because now all the articles of the day are about Artificial Intelligence taking us to extinction, so now we’ve got that to worry about, too.

Paste: Pretty soon your mixing board HAL will say, “I’m sorry, Jay. I can’t do that!”

Farrar: That’s #1 on my list of things to do—go back and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey. And hopefully I’ll glean some insight from that….

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