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Son Volt's Jay Farrar and the meaning of life

By Bill Sacks, March 1996

Very few people who write and perform popular music for a living can claim the sort of consistent quality for their work that Son Volt's Jay Farrar can.

Having begun his professional musical career in the St. Louis area (by way of nearby Belleville, Ill., where he and Son Volt drummer Mike Heidorn both grew up) at the beginning of the decade with the trio Uncle Tupelo (which originally included Heidorn and bassist Jeff Tweedy), Farrar set out to meld the folk and country music played in his parents' home with the dynamics of punk rock.

The result was a style which bound together tight, angular rhythms with acoustic guitars, banjos and steels, all of which called attention to the emotional spaces which both parent forms held in common: a lyrical tradition of both protest and self-reflection derived from lives lived at the margins of power and privilege.Uncle Tupelo lasted slightly over five years, after which the group splintered; the principles have been reluctant to discuss details.

Jeff Tweedy regrouped the cadre of players who filled out Uncle Tupelo's ranks during their last year on the road under the new name Wilco, producing two discs which move his old group's traditional leanings closer to the roots rock sound of the late '60's and early '70's.

Farrar and Heidorn came together, by way of the Minneapolis scene spearheaded by their old friends in the Jayhawks, with brothers Jim and Dave Boquist on bass and guitar respectively and Eric Heywood on pedal steel (for all good intent, the unofficial fifth member of the group) to create a collection of songs which delve even further into those revelatory moments when remnants of the past take on forceful relevance.

With "Straightaways," his second recording under his current band's moniker and his sixth overall, Jay Farrar has further expanded the depth of a body of work which speaks broadly about the nature of memory, the tolls of regret, and the prospects for hard-won hope.

The songs continue to be derived from a stylistic frame of reference which not only encompasses the founders of the country tradition dating back to the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers, but to the finest songwriters which rock music in all its variety has produced as well.

What appears below are excerpts of a phone conversation with Farrar on April 21, the day before the official release date of the new record. Son Volt was in Baltimore, mid-way through a tour taking them from the Midwest to the East Coast and back, including a stop to tape a set for the PBS program "Austin City Limits." After a run through the U.K. and Europe in June, the band will be back in the States, touring throughout the summer.

CST: The press from Warner about "Straightaways" almost has an apologetic tone to it, as if its similarities to "Trace" were a liability. Are there distinct differences between the two records which you can point to?
JF: Mainly, the new album reflects the state of the band at the time it was recorded. If there's a difference between the two sets, it's in the way we've learned to interact as a band rather than in terms of concept. Our approach this time was to just to go into the studio and capture the moment, no frills, no outside musicians... Well, there's one guy (Pauli Ryan) playing tambourine, but...

CST: So were the songs tailored to capture the band's new playing style?
JF: At times; some of the arrangements were worked out as we went along, others had been worked up on stage to the point where we were happy with them and didn't have to alter them very much. And there were a couple of things, "Been Set Free" and "No More Parades," where we went for stripped-down arrangements... They gave the record its balance.

CST: How has the band grown over the past two years?
JF: Well, when we first recorded "Trace," we were really just friends who also happened to be musicians, but after a few tours it really became more intuitive. Also, having Eric Heywood (on pedal steel) around to play live with us has been important - the sound of the guitars and the steel all seemed to come together into a cohesive sound.

CST: You've recently relocated from New Orleans back to the St. Louis area. Has the move been good for you?
JF: Yeah, especially in terms of the logistics of getting the band together for rehearsals, because Jim and Dave (Boquist) and Eric all still live around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The move has made the commute easier, and we're able to spend more time at the practice space we've got over in Southern Illinois or, sometimes, up in Minnesota. The move was also one of the reasons for recording parts of "Straightaways" when we did -as with the last record, some of the songs were drawn from observations on the long drives between New Orleans, St. Louis and Minneapolis, and I wanted to capture those ideas before too much time had passed.

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