Son Volt: Six-String Belief

Music Features Son Volt
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If my personal growth was charted by albums and not the dated pencil marks on the back of a kitchen door, Son Volt’s Trace would’ve easily represented my biggest growth spurt after Marlo Thomas and Friends’ Free to Be You and Me and Journey’s Escape. Therefore, spending my thirty-something birthday in Brooklyn’s Headgear Studio with Jay Farrar and co-producer/engineer John Agnello (Drive-By Truckers, Steve Wynn, The Kills) as they finalize mixes on the first Son Volt record in seven years is emotionally conflicting. It’s akin to having a lauded author read you each draft of his new mystery novel as soon as he puts down the pen; instantly gratifying yet somewhat demystifying. The simile is apt, for it captures the very essence of the album itself.

Titled after the birthplace of Woody Guthrie and a lyric from one of its more telling songs, Okemah and the Melody of Riot reunites Jay Farrar with, well … a band, for starters. Although the original Son Volt rejoined in April of last year to record Alejandro Escovedo’s “Sometimes” for an Escovedo tribute album, the old lineup couldn’t come to terms contractually before officially reforming. With a characteristic shrug of the shoulders, Farrar simply assembled a new cast for the album including Dave Bryson (Canyon) on drums, Andrew Duplantis (The Meat Puppets, Bob Mould) on bass and Brad Rice (Tift Merritt, Ryan Adams) on guitar. The quick, two-week October recording session was webcast live and from the look and sound of it, Farrar made some good choices. Over some take-out Thai food Farrar characterizes the feel of the new band.

“It’s been very organic and spontaneous and that’s what’s been cool about it. It’s really been done without all the prerequisite hassles that usually come along with the process, or at least with all the bands that I’ve been involved in.” He laughs and continues, “I mean we’ve all seen the reality TV shows regarding bands. I’m surprised I haven’t been on one. ”

He’s of course referring mostly to his time in Uncle Tupelo, the infamous band-cum-musical movement he forged with Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn. While the well-documented split in 1994 over “creative differences” may have been somewhat acrimonious, Farrar and Tweedy are more than civil to each other now. Both have seen each other play in their various incarnations and Farrar has listened to and enjoys Wilco’s material. When asked if he missed anything about the band, he offers, “It obviously represents a period of my life, being in a band and sort of getting to live the life at least you thought you wanted to lead and getting to play music full-time. Of course that was something I always wanted to see happen, so I have good memories of it, yet it’s not something I want to relive. In fact, the best part about stopping Son Volt after Wide Swing Tremolo was [that], slowly, the question of ‘Hey, is Uncle Tupelo ever going to get back together?’ was replaced with, ‘Hey is Son Volt ever going to get back together?’ And I finally got to answer it.”

The answer arrived after Farrar spent the elongated break raising a family, building a studio near his home in St. Louis and producing two solo albums — Sebastapol and Terroir Blues, the latter a lonely discourse shrouded in poignancy and hypnotic dissonance that in many places mirrors the loss of his father.

“I was doing a lot of writing during the time he was dying of cancer, just before he passed away, so I didn’t really feel like playing the up-tempo melodic stuff. So I just set that aside and picked the more acoustic stuff to record for awhile.”

The album was a needed catharsis both personally and musically. In addition to having four of the songs repeated with different renditions wedged throughout, it’s also infused with several mini-instrumental passages steeped in sampled experimentation labeled “Space Junk.” Farrar smiles at the mention of the tracks, “It was quite liberating coming from having done the Son Volt thing for five years straight. It was something I felt I needed and wanted to do, just to step out of the box. I was always a fan of the backwards effects on Revolver, so I was just trying out different sounds in the same spirit. It helped me learn a lot about process.”

Fans of any band will welcome such experimentation on a frontman’s solo album now and again and may even see it as a necessary indulgence in order to keep the main band harmoniously intact. However, back-to-back solo albums are a lot to digest and usually spell the end of the group. When asked if there was something he just couldn’t express through his solo efforts, and why he chose to reform Son Volt, he quickly responds, “The idea of doing solo records was supposed to be that it could be anything—samples, different instrumentation, etc. But with Son Volt, it just represents guys playing in a studio trying to capture the essence of the moment and then being able to take it on the road and have the same songs translate in a live context. With the solo stuff I never had the intention of taking the synthesizers on the road. I mean there’s something unique when you are playing with a group of people and there is a synergy involved. Something happens and it’s unexpected; it makes it all worthwhile. I maybe missed the unexpected.”

The moments captured on analog—now blasting through the studio’s system—are indeed worthwhile. This is pure, unabashed Son Volt, with trampoline reverb, humming echoes and warm, vintage power chords begging to be unleashed through multiple Marshall stacks. Watching the decibel- and voltage-unit needles quiver and stretch for the redline is a not-so-subtle wake-up call to those expecting a deeply layered, heavily produced affair. Son Volt has always conjured a feeling of road-weary resplendence and oil-stained amplification. Okemah and the Melody of Riot is a shiny neon sign pointing the way back to when guitars were full of piss and vinegar and proud of it.

ROCK AND ROLL AROUND MY HEAD 50 WATTS HAPPENING

Over three straight hours, Farrar paces the room drumming his thighs

as Agnello meticulously works the dials and faders on the opening track, “Bandages & Scars”—a speed-up/slow-down rollercoaster ride anchored with blistering social commentary. Its critical inspiration is proudly on display in the repeated chorus, “the words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head.”

This directness and unveiled nod to Farrar’s musical heritage is the act of an artist comfortable with his place in its lineage. The honesty is refreshing in the current sonic landscape of retrofitting The Cure, New Order and Blondie and calling it “the hot new sound.” The adage being, if it ain’t broke, then play it louder. Farrar obliges on the album’s second track, “Afterglow 61,” a thumping ode to the hallowed Highway 61. Where Dylan’s defiant tribute to the same cracked asphalt heralded a shift in the cultural landscape, Farrar’s take reads more like a musical history lesson reminding us that most things worth finding are between the painted lines.

“Highway 61 runs through St. Louis, where I’m from,” he says, “and during the rehearsals and recording of Trace I was living in New Orleans and making the 24-hour drive up through St. Louis to Minneapolis, and often I would get off the interstate and get on 61 which runs parallel to it, and drive it just for the experiences. I even stopped at Angola prison where Leadbelly was incarcerated. They were having a rodeo and art sale, which was a little bizarre.”

While, lyrically, Farrar still conjures truck-stop ghosts and sepia-toned postcards of yesteryear’s travails, the undercurrent seems more infused with political discontent. Although he acknowledges the pitfalls of using the rock ’n’ roll microphone as a soapbox, he once again refers to his elders.

“I was exposed to Woody Guthrie and Dylan by my parents at a young age. We even covered Dylan’s ‘Song to Woody Guthrie’ in Uncle Tupelo. Now my kids request ‘This Land is Your Land’ everyday, so I am interested and informed by Woody and Dylan’s approach. You don’t need to beat anyone over the head with it, but at various times, depending on the political climate, and since being a parent makes one feel like more of a stakeholder, you have to say something occasionally.”

The declaration framer states revolution sets the course straight
It was necessary then and it’s necessary now
Corruption in the system a grassroots insurrection
Will bring them down, will bring them down

The following day Agnello kicks us out of the room so he can isolate a certain sound in the mix. To break the monotony, Farrar walks into the adjacent studio, sits down at a piano, and quietly begins playing the opening notes of the album’s final track, “World Waits For You.” Integrating piano into the Son Volt sound may seem heretical, but it works. Inherently, the instrument lends an emotional weight that complements and conveys the sparse sincerity of the album’s sendoff. While Farrar once teased his parents that they were ultimately responsible for him becoming a musician because of their insistence on piano lessons, he now has become proficient enough to use it as another writing tool.

For someone who has just started playing again, he’s surprisingly adept, as displayed by his spontaneous rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.” I ask him what it was like to play with Keith Richards at the recent Gram Parsons Tribute show in Hollywood. While admittedly a surreal and memorable experience, he doesn’t seem overly fazed, which is status quo for Farrar on most subjects, but it feels like there’s a deeper frustration. When pushed more on the subject of the Stones in general, he stops playing.

“It’s clear that their best work was Exile on Main St, which was just so raw and real. I just wish they would get back to that ideal in the studio. I mean, at this point, what do they have to lose?”

One can’t hear his criticism without wondering how Farrar views his own career as he takes on the challenge of bringing back such a beloved band after a long hiatus. While he truly isn’t out to prove anything to anyone, it’s obvious just by the fact that I’m in the room that the people around him realize the stakes are a bit higher with this album. Notoriously shy and soft-spoken, it’s difficult to imagine how Farrar will fare in the consolidated hype-machine of the industry as he shops for a new label. I ask him if there’s a particular career path he’d like to follow. His choice is not surprising.

“If you took Neil Young and the fact that he always goes back to Crazy Horse. I could see Son Volt as something like that, but he continues to do his solo stuff as well as mix things up and keep it all fresh.”

When asked if Farrar’s take on Young’s Trans looms on the horizon, he smiles.

“Hey, that was some of his most relevant work, but I doubt we’ll do any techno or industrial metal, but we are doing a cover of Willie Williams’ “Armagideon Time,” so maybe some industrial reggae. I actually met Neil Young at Farm Aid once. I just sort of said hello. I’m sure he was thinking ‘this guy’s an absolute mute.’ You know, I can empathize with each of those kind of guys, like Johnny Cash and Neil Young. They’re all kind of uncomfortable with the whole fame situation, so I just want to, you know, meet them and let them know how they influenced my music. I can also say I played with Neil… kind of. Son Volt was playing the HORDE tour one year and we were on stage at one end of this huge stadium and Neil is on another stage at the other end. It started to pour just as he was finishing up his set with ‘Like a Hurricane’ and we were opening ours with ‘Drown,’ which was quite a weird literal experience.”

Obviously Young’s career lends itself to emulation, but many others have tried, to no avail. However, a betting man playing the odds could do well picking Farrar to at least place or show. The comparisons go beyond early success with seminal bands, heartland acoustics and crushing prairie punk; the real size-up comes onstage.

ROCK AND ROLL AROUND MY HEAD LIKE A SIX STRING BELIEF

Three months later to the day, I’m in Austin, Texas, standing outside

on the renowned Stubb’s porch watching The Wall?owers knock out “One Headlight.” Soon, a mass of audiophiles with their five-dollar keg cups of Tecate raised to the rock gods coolly jockey for position. Like ironic T-shirt-wearing salmon, a few Wall?owers devotees swim against the spring tide of Son Volt fans surging toward the stage. This is one of the first shows with the new lineup, and I’m standing next to Farrar’s hulking lead guitarist, Mark Spencer (formerly of the Blood Oranges) and pedal-steel wünderkind, Eric Heywood, both of whom lent their talents on a few of Okemah’s tracks. Their presence and support exemplifies the eagerness of all in attendance. It sounds overly trite and hackneyed but it really does feel like there’s electricity emanating from the swirling anticipation. Down front, the cowboy-shirt hipsters are already bobbing their heads and jutting their chins before the first note is played. The seven-year itch is over. Son Volt takes the stage.

Right from the count-off, Farrar shows his confidence and fortitude by opening with five straight new tunes; each one more vivacious and noticeably louder than the last. With shades of Bonham, Bryson pummels his toms like he’s wielding iron mallets, and by the time Wide Swing Tremolo’s “Driving the View” shakes the floorboards, I swear he and Duplantis are trying to rattle every jaw in the joint. Their grins are a dead giveaway. Unflinching, Farrar brandishes his black Gretsch like a demonic scythe slaying winter wheat, fervently spraying sonic chaff on the rapt and willing. Spencer and Heywood stand pleased as proud uncles of this unhinged musical spawn. To drive home the point during “Medication,” Farrar stomps an effects pedal, faces the stack of Marshalls and starts pounding his pick guard senseless with clenched fist. Pulsating reverb and caterwauling feedback escapes the monitors, holding its own ears in submission. Just when it seems no one will be spared, Farrar pulls back the throttle and delivers a “Tear Stained Eye” / “Windfall” combo with his perfect reedy warble and full accompaniment from the first 30 rows. After a quick “Thanks for coming,” the rust falls off completely with a throbbing “Drown” finale.

Standing outside the band’s dressing room, Farrar radiates a contact high as he doles out a bucket of “aw shucks” sincerity to all those offering well-deserved praise. Through the kudos and family ribbing from Spencer and Heywood, I ask how being back on the stage synched up to his mind’s eye.

“Besides the unknown stink in the van—which I believe is the sweet smell of Red Bull and bananas—I’m real happy to be in a band again. It feels real good to give the old songs a little bit more curry and volume.”

He also talks about the excitement of the band’s recent signing with Sony’s Legacy Recordings, home to such idols as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Leadbelly and Bob Dylan. Once again Son Volt is in good hands and good company. Legacy worked diligently and successfully on the Uncle Tupelo Anthology release and Farrar and his management have known some of the players there for over a decade. Every pump seems primed for his band’s triumphant return. Now he just needs to get his picture taken.

Written about to death around
for another breath
Palates will ebb and masses will ?ow
Killed by consolidation killed by saturation
The underground will correct
with reaction rebellion

Feeding the obstreperous press piranhas is akin to pulling nose hairs with rusty tweezers, especially when the quarry isn’t the most loquacious or malleable of beasts. So a month after his show in Austin, we meet at Sweet & Vicious, a nice dark bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for some early afternoon pints of Guinness. The beers help the conversation ?ow, until the still photographer shows up and commandeers the phalanx of manager, label rep and lawyer out to a crispy spring day at Desalvio Park on Spring Street. Farrar tries to stay interested in the task at hand amidst toothless Asian elders slapping dominoes on chess tables and a seven-year-old, pudgy Latin kid named Sheldon bouncing a basketball and vociferously announcing to all and nobody that he’s practicing his “Super Duper Shot!” Barely contained in his PS 131 T-shirt covered in Spiderman stickers, he hounds the “picture man” several times to capture his athletic prowess. Sheldon is finally indulged before the posse heads off in search of the obligatory deserted-alley backdrop for a few more stoic and sultry shots of the capitulating musician. As I scribble notes on the evolution of Son Volt over the past five months, Sheldon tugs at my jacket and asks if Farrar is “famous or something.”

It’s a good question. Farrar is not a luminary. Son Volt is not world-renowned. He still tours in a van, and some critics have given up on him due to relevancy in a prepubescent musical paradigm. But while some believe his legacy is precariously balanced between possible confirmation and slow condemnation, signs of a tilting scale seem to be popping up everywhere, from Rhino’s Son Volt retrospective, to New West Records’ DVD-release of Son Volt on Austin City Limits, to the signing with Legacy. It’s clear Farrar at least holds the key to the select musical pantheon of rock ’n’ roll permanency whose members include J.J. Cale, John Prine, Cowboy Junkies, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson and other unique stalwarts who continue to relish, hone and revel in their instantly recognizable sound.

But the strength and vitality of Okemah and the Melody of Riot, heralds more than just another mark on the kitchen door. It’s a reaffirmation of American rock in its purest form. While the cyclical musical tastes of the republic speed up with each merger and acquisition, Farrar continues to shrug his shoulders with critical indifference. The real measure of growth is where you are at the end of the line; just ask Neil Young or Bob Dylan. In the meantime Farrar is just happy to be playing in a band again.

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