On May 1, 1994, the seminal alt-country group Uncle Tupelo performed its final show before a standing-room-only crowd at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis, Mo. The band, burdened by infighting between the two uniquely talented songwriters from Belleville, Ill., Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, parted ways at the height of their success, after four critically praised albums and years of endless touring. Both musicians rebounded just fine—Tweedy went on with Wilco, as Farrar formed Son Volt and subsequently released the irreplaceable debut, Trace, in 1995, a record that remains a touchstone for many music fans, critics, and bands today.
Recently Farrar has begun to draw from the early country sounds of the 1940s and 50s and recorded Honky Tonk, a throwback to the classic Bakersfield sound. When American popular music began to take hold in the early 20th century, country music was among the genres that blossomed in the rural parts of the Southeast, springing up from European and Appalachian styles and instruments. Economic and political matters further influenced country music during the years of the Great Depression, shaping the content of most songs of the time. As Dust Bowl refugees made their way across the Great Plains into the promised land of California in search of a better life, the music brought with them began a transformation of sorts. Migrants from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and the South began playing a style of country music with different rhythm, fiddle and steel runs, and artists like Buck Owens, Bob Willis, and Wynn Stewart created the “Bakersfield sound,” combining heartache with heartfelt lyrics and a juke-joint swing, distinguishing themselves as creators of genre.
It’s easy to understand why Farrar would gravitate to such a spirit, one that embodied rock n’ roll ideals with country sensibility. The Bakersfield sound was indeed a giant middle finger to the polished, overly produced music that Nashville started putting out during the mid-20th century. With that in mind, Farrar and the rest of Son Volt recorded an album that sounds fresh and inventive while also timeless and enduring. Son Volt’s beautifully arranged songs—with pedal steel-tinged accents and dueling fiddle shuffles—swings about on topics of love, heartbreak, and redemption, ultimately making Honky Tonk required listening.
If golden-hue lighting cast across a smoke-filled dusty barrelhouse dance floor as songs like “Wild Side” and “Tears of Change” swayed beautifully in the background, it would be transcendent. “Seawall” and “Bakersfield” rev the tempo just enough to get your boots tapping, while “Down the Highway” and “Barricades” come across as some of Farrar’s more superior work in several albums. Farrar does his best to pay homage to his predecessors within this carefully crafted record without sounding like a Friday-night cover band, and the results pay off. The optimistic tone on many songs is a welcomed departure from his typically ponderous, downtrodden style. “I did set out to celebrate that music, I didn’t want to be limited by it, so when it came to finding a little more upbeat tempo or lyrical content I went with it,” Farrar said.
Q&A with Jay Farrar
SML: The new album, Honky Tonk, feels kin to its predecessor, American Central Dust, with more acoustic elements. You really got into the Bakersfield sound. Was that a guilty pleasure for you?
Farrar: Over the course of the last year and a half, I just became immersed in honky tonk music and the Bakersfield sound in particular because as I was learning the pedal steel I was listening to Ralph Mooney, who was on Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens’ records. When it came time to write songs for this Son Volt record, it was pretty much second nature to write these songs that wound up being in that context. I wanted to acknowledge and pay homage to honky tonk music but not feel limited by its parameters. Some of the songs are a bit outside of honky tonk, like “Hearts and Minds” which has a Cajun feel, but Hank Williams established that early on—that it’s all connected as elemental American music.
The Bakersfield sound seems like it was the antithesis of the Nashville sound from the 1940s and 50s. I’m wondering if that was the beginnings of the outlaw-country genre that sprang up in the 1960s.
I think you have a good argument there. Bakersfield was essentially an incubator where there was not a lot of industry there, not a lot of industry folks coming into their recording sessions saying, “We gotta have these back-up singers on here, we gotta have these strings on here.” That’s essentially what happened in Nashville whereas in Bakersfield, they were allowed to evolve and develop on their own, and they really came up with some great ideas, and along the way they brought more of the rock n’ roll intensity and sensibility that was not really there in Nashville.
The working-class characters that come out in your lyrics seem to be reminiscent of these post-Depression folks; Woody Guthrie has certainly influenced you on some level.
Yeah, it’s something I’ve certainly noticed. My family comes from south-central Missouri, Woody came from Oklahoma, and most of those folks that migrated to California in the 30s and 40s came from Oklahoma, Texas, and even Missouri. I was struck by how similar Woody Guthrie’s dialect was to my father’s.
Was there anything you wanted to avoid when writing and recording Honky Tonk?
No, not really. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to go off in different directions. The idea was to revisit the fiddle and steel guitar aesthetic that’s on the first Son Volt record, on the first song, but we didn’t want to be limited to that, so along the way we experimented with the Cajun sound. There’s even a little bit of a soul, probably inspired by Solomon Burke, on songs like “Livin’ On,” a little bit of an Irish sound on “Down the Highway,” and ultimately a song like “Shine On” is a little more contemporary sounding.
You’ve allowed your writing to evolve on Honky Tonk and include words like “heart” and “love” throughout. It seems like you’re bending your own rules a bit on this new record. Have the results been worth the risk?
Yeah, I think so. I also realize that after this CD I may not ever use the words “heart” or “love” again…perhaps, I don’t know. I used them a lot, particularly writing within the honky tonk realm I just got into it, using words they used, within that lexicon.
What inspired songs like “Barricades” and “Wild Side?” They have such an overtly optimistic tone.
I think so much of the lyrical content that’s found within that particular period of honky tonk is almost like a culture of commiseration: so much heartache, so much heartbreak. I think it was just a natural part of the process on this recording that it would not be that way. I did set out to celebrate that music. I didn’t want to be limited by it, so when it came to finding a little more upbeat tempo or lyrical content I went with it.
There have been themes in other Son Volt albums, but not quite like Honky Tonk. Is it easier to create a conceptual album or a collection of singles?
I think this record, lyrically and sonically, was more conceptual and thematic than anything I’ve ever done, yet it still winds up being a group of singles I would say. It depends on what instrumentation and approach makes each song work ultimately.
Mark Spencer (member of Son Volt) said that after a long day of recording, the reward was to sit around, listen to some classic country with a few beers, and enjoy hanging out. Sounds like heaven to me.
(Laughing) It’s an essential part of being a musician—drawing inspiration from the perseverances of other musicians and where they’ve been, but it’s also important to go out and sing music every day. There’s something about that that’s good for the soul.
How hard was it to disclose some of your more personal life events in your book, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs?
It wasn’t hard; it was cathartic in a way. It was nice to take stock and review. The fact that I’ve never written anything before could have been an impediment. I look at this writing as being more along the lines of “folk-writing.” I’m not trained to write, but I just found it was something that I wanted to do.
You write a lot about your dad. Was he the impetus for your musical career?
In a lot of ways, yes, he was. My mother took charge of the nuts and bolts of actually teaching me how to play the guitar. My father, he was a character. He was eccentric. Even when I was a kid, there were other kids coming over to my house just to be around my father, to learn from him. A lot of the inspiration for starting the book was born out of conversations with my brothers. My father seemed different than everyone else’s father. He allowed a lot of childhood freedom, and we were allowed to roam—probably the way kids grew up in the 40s and 50s.
One of the stories from the book, Falling Cars, gives your side of the story behind the end of Uncle Tupelo. Was this by design? Did you want to make sure this piece of your history was included in the book from the onset?
I did. A central question after the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo was always: Why? And that central element of trust was broken by that particular experience that I put in the book.
Was that your way of putting the nail in the coffin and calling it done, concerning that moment?
Of that moment, for sure. Basically I’m here to tell my story, and if I don’t tell it, no one else will.
I asked you in 2005 if you weren’t playing music, what was the alternative and you told me truck driving. Would that be your response in 2013?
No, I don’t think so; I’d say I’d be a writer. I definitely like the process and the lifestyle to be able to sit down every day and have some creative output and have your exact thoughts put to paper. It’s something I could do a lot more of.