Jay Farrar Heads back to the country for Son Volt's "American Central Dust"
By Brian Baker, July 2009
Jay Farrar has traveled a winding path since reassembling the scatterlings of Son Volt five years ago. Although Farrar had been in solo acoustic mode for nearly five years, he got the original Son Volt line-up back to the studio in 2004 to record a version of Alejandro Escovedo's Sometimes for "Por Vida," the tribute/benefit album for the hepatitis-stricken singer/songwriter. Sensing a renewed vigor, Farrar proposed putting the band back together to record a new album, a plan that fell through at the 11th hour.
Undaunted, Farrar contacted friends and sessioners to piece together a new version of Son Volt for 2005's acclaimed "Okemah and the Melody of Riot;" that aggregation toured and largely remained intact for 2007's expansive and schizophonic "The Search." At its conclusion, Farrar knew that the next Son Volt album would turn toward tradition.
"'The Search' was a process of exploring what was out there, in terms of instrumentation and song structure," says Farrar. "A lot of songs were written and recorded during that period; they didn't all make it on the release, but they eventually came out on a double vinyl LP release. Throughout that process, it was about exploring whatever possibilities were there - using alternate tunings and things like that - so that led to this record, more of a straightforward approach with standard tunings and a more familiar aesthetic in terms of instrumentation; getting back to using violin and a lot of pedal steel."
Son Volt plays Dynamite at the Wiltern, Los Angeles, July 16, 2009
When Farrar and the latest incarnation of Son Volt (guitarist Chris Masterson, keyboardist/pedal steelist Mark Spencer, bassist Andrew Duplantis, drummer Dave Bryson) hit the studio last year to begin work on what would ultimately become "American Central Dust," the exploratory experiences that defined "The Search" had already inspired Farrar to consider the next album in very specific light.
"I wanted it to be more focused, and I decided to only play acoustic guitar on the record, to get away from the schizophrenia of jumping back and forth between acoustic and electric," says Farrar. "That dynamic element always fueled what I found to be inspirational, but this time I wanted it to be more straightforward and focused. And pedal steel guitar is something I wanted to get back to."
"American Central Dust" offers up some of Farrar's most compelling songs since reviving the dormant Son Volt five years ago. Although he doesn't claim any specific lyrical focus on the album, Farrar admits that he has a particular methodology when it comes to songwriting.
"I was writing the way I normally write which is more throwing-things-at-the-wall-and-seeing-what-sticks," says Farrar. "It's probably something that was inspired by Jack Kerouac's style of writing; more of a stream of consciousness style and then trying to make a structure out of raw ideas, so it was like working backwards that way. But in a couple of instances on this record, I came up with a central theme and then tried to write a song around that. Cocaine and Ashes and Sultana are probably the best examples of that."
Indeed they are. Cocaine and Ashes is Farrar's tribute to Keith Richards, specifically the Stones guitarist's bold (and ultimately facetious) admission that he'd mixed his late father's cremated remains with cocaine and snorted the lot. Rather than couching the song in a stereotypical Stonesy swagger, Farrar turns Cocaine and Ashes into a breathtakingly naked piano ballad sung in a confessional hush from the lionized guitarist's point of view.
"I felt like doing it from Keith's perspective was the best approach," says Farrar. "I felt like his comment in the press - that he'd mixed his father's ashes with cocaine and snorted it - was idiosyncratic, but it was very honest and real. That's what I've always liked about Keith; he doesn't hold back. In addition to being a fan of the Rolling Stones, Keith sort of inspired me to learn how to play piano."
Farrar's other themed track is Sultana, the true story of a post-Civil War steamship accident that claimed nearly 1,800 lives, but was virtually ignored in the press. It's a fascinating chapter in American history that Farrar was compelled to discuss.
"In addition to the name of the ship itself - The Sultana struck me as a sadly powerful name - when the story originally happened, it was kind of buried because it came right after the Civil War had just ended, and Lincoln had just been assassinated," says Farrar. "I just felt like it was a subject worth exploring in song. My original interest in things that happen on the river was passed down to me through my father who worked on a boat on the Mississippi River for several decades. And the point of origination for the song probably comes from where I live in St. Louis; you can look over the bluffs sometimes when the river is low and see what appears to be old shipwreck objects poking out of the sandbars."