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Jay Farrar resurrects Son Volt and Woody Guthrie

By Brian Baker, July 2005

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Did he ever. Within days of the crushing disappointment of Son Volt's short-circuited reunion, Farrar put together a shoestring band - Tift Merritt/Ryan Adams guitarist Brad Rice, Alejandro Escovedo/Jon Dee Graham bassist Andrew Duplantis and former Canyon drummer Dave Bryson - and took them into the studio to record the electrically charged new album.

Farrar had worked extensively with Bryson when Canyon served as opener/backing band for him in 2003, and Duplantis had actually opened for Son Volt back in 1997; Rice represented "a little bit of the unknown element."

With no rehearsal time, the just-add songs version of Son Volt coalesced cosmically around Farrar's gripping new tracks, almost spontaneously creating a potent roots/rock soundtrack that will be equally compelling to fans of the original Son Volt and to fans of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

"It feels good to have done it," says Farrar of the new album. "For me, it represents getting back with a band, in general and everything that goes with that. It is nice, especially the way we worked, which was more organic and trying to capture things live as much as possible and keeping overdubs to a minimum. There's an element of spontaneity and camaraderie that makes the recording process a fun thing to do. We didn't know what to expect. We were all surprised that it worked."

Although Farrar admits that the songs on Okemah could have been arranged to fit into his solo format, he notes that they were different enough in his own mind to warrant framing them with the Son Volt reunion.

"I suppose they could have been, but they would have been presented a much different way if they'd wound up on a solo record," he says. "I felt that Son Volt was the proper place for them to go. Some of the songs were a little more melodic and uptempo than some of the stuff I'd been writing, and it just sort of reflects a different period in my life. Especially during the 'Terroir Blues' period, when my father was succumbing to cancer and passing away, I didn't really feel like rocking out. That's why that album sounds the way it does."

In that context, there is a certain joyful abandon in Okemah's songs that reflects Farrar's relatively more upbeat viewpoint these days. He's become a father twice over the past six years, his solo career was personally and creatively satisfying, and he is in the process of revisiting a band that earned him a great deal of acclaim and adoration during its run.

At the same time, Farrar is addressing a number of weighty political issues on "Okemah and the Melody of Riot," as he turns a cynical eye toward the Bush administration and the military morass in Iraq.

The album's title is a nod to Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Okla., and Farrar name checks the political folkie directly in the lyrics of the album's opening track, the incendiary rocker "Bandages and Scars:" "The words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head."

"The reference in 'Bandages and Scars' relates directly to both my kids, who seem drawn to Woody's music," says Farrar. "Woody's always been a reference point for me as well as a source of inspiration. Especially when there's times of political turmoil, which has been going on for the past year in this country, Woody is someone I turn to for guidance."

Elsewhere on Okemah, Farrar offers up songs like "Jet Pilot" and "Endless War," with lyrics that speak to the world's current agitations but which are presented in such a way that the songs become cautionary metaphors rather than literal anti-war screeds.

"I'm reluctant to write in ways that could be considered strident or hitting people over the head," says Farrar. "I try not to be over the top."

That restraint in the face of chaos has defined nearly the whole of Farrar's musical career, from his eclectic work with Uncle Tupelo in the '80s to his Son Volt output in the '90s to his gently incisive solo catalog. You can even detect a hint of it in the title of the new album: the melody of riot, the harmonious structure of the former counterpointed with the cacophonous tumult of the latter.

"It probably reflects a more internal riot," says Farrar. "That's almost the definition of rock and roll in a nutshell, isn't it?"

After a well-received showcase for an overflow crowd at Stubbs in Austin at this year's SXSW and sporadic dates since then, Son Volt will tour this fall.

Farrar insists that this is no one-off reunion novelty, but a true return to the band life, although it's still not a permanent structure; Rice was already committed to Merritt, so guitarist Chris Frame will tour in his stead.

And even as Son Volt exists now as a real entity in an admitted state of flux, Farrar admits that his solo career similarly shimmers in the distance.

"I hope that they can keep running simultaneously," says Farrar of his dual careers. "I definitely hope that Son Volt will continue on, and if there's time, I would hope to continue doing solo projects as well as other side projects. I have done one that I finished up the week before the Son Volt was recorded. We had studio time booked (for Son Volt), and Anders Parker was in town to play keyboards on the recor. So, we just decided to record a record. It's kind of a folk record, where we reworked some standards, rewriting lyrics, in some cases rewriting melody to traditional lyrics. We don't know what to call it yet, but that may come out sometime next year."

Throughout Jay Farrar's musical career, it seems as though he's been trying to get out of his own shadow. He helped to inadvertently start a revolution of sorts with the twisted traditionalism of Uncle Tupelo, which then led to outsized expectations for Son Volt, which ultimately increased the scrutiny on his solo work. And now, with a new version of Son Volt supplanting the old, he's once again standing in the fire as fans and critics alike line up to compare whatever Farrar is doing to what he's already done.

"That's pretty much to be expected," says a bemused Farrar. "The way I look at it, it's my job to concentrate on creating stuff and after I'm done, it's out of my hands."

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