The story of Son Volt’s new album is the story, more or less, of the aged amplifier memorialized on a Son Volt album cover, some old bluesmen and their distinctive guitar tunings and, oh yeah, Nick Drake.
“I really had not played electric guitar on the last few Son Volt recordings,” Jay Farrar, the band’s frontman, said from his home in St. Louis recently. “So this was a chance to get back to it. And to kind of mark that 20-year Son Volt milestone I pulled out the old amplifier that I used on the very first Son Volt record, ‘Trace.’ The amplifier is photographed on that cover. I pulled that out, and I felt like that amplifier had the right aesthetic for these songs.”
Farrar’s songs, through decades of band and solo work, have chronicled the many shades of American melancholy, in riveting detail and in a voice that sounds like the steel guitar that so frequently backs it. But for all the specificity in his writing, he has a reputation as being a tough interview.
And while you wouldn’t call him exactly expansive, the now 50-year-old was engaging on subjects ranging from that new record to the late, great Chuck Berry, another St. Louisian, and, yes, to his apparently improving relationship with Jeff Tweedy, the Wilco frontman and Farrar’s former partner in the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.
When told that the new record, “Notes of Blue,” was classified under “country” when ripped to a digital format, Farrar said that was fine “for the most part. … The catalyst, the focus, was more on blues, but I was really aiming for where folk and blues and country converge, in terms of what I felt like this record should sound like.
“So entirely comfortable with it? Perhaps it could be a better description there, but you have to kind of roll with it at some point. The blues were really a foundation of early country music. Hank Williams, in particular, Jimmie Rodgers, they essentially embraced blues, and in the case of Hank Williams, he was taught to play guitar by a blues musician.”
Beyond picking up the electric guitar in the studio again, Farrar said he was inspired by a desire “from more of a student perspective, to learn the tunings of a couple of old blues icons and heroes, Fred McDowell and Skip James. And then there was another guy thrown into the mix, Nick Drake, someone I’ve been a fan of for years. The one common thread in all those guys is that I always viewed them as having a certain mystique attached to those tunings … and they all used a lot of fingerpicking style.”
He described the opening tune, the folk-tinged “Promise the World” as kind of “a bridge” back to the rest of his catalog and being most directly influenced by Drake, the British singer-songwriter. But most of the rest of the record features a grinding, fuzzy guitar as it explores classic blues themes of hard living and hopes of redemption: “I'll drink shine in Cairo,” “must atone for the women and wine,” “it’s always midnight way down in hell.”
Rays of light shine through, though, as well. Farrar said the second tune, “Back Against the Wall,” “comes from the same place as a song like ‘Windfall' on the first Son Volt record. It’s intended to be a rally song to take on adversity, kind of a shield of sorts for challenges that may come up.”
That tune started more in the English folk style, he said, “but it seemed to me it should be more amped up and it became more uptempo and became the song that it is.” “With darkness on your doorstep,” it advises, “keep your feet on the ground.”
Another artist who came out of that nexus of country and blues – and then, by some estimations, invented rock ‘n' roll – was Berry, who died March 18. Berry was very much a presence in St. Louis music, Farrar said, and in some surprising places.
“I think starting in the mid-1980s he did monthly shows at Blueberry Hill, his club in St. Louis,” he said. “So I was able to catch him there a couple of times … and then I once saw him at a Husker Du show in the 1980s. He had an interest in going out and seeing punk bands for a while.
“Chuck was such a major influence on pretty much everybody. It’s almost impossible to play a guitar solo without at some point going into Chuck’s style of soloing.”
When news of Berry’s death came, the band was playing St. Louis and honored him that night with a cover of “Around and Around,” although that appears to have fallen out of the Son Volt set in recent shows.
Farrar mentioned “Trace,” the first Son Volt record, several times. Not only did the amplifier help shape the sound on “Notes of Blue,” but the album had a 20th anniversary rerelease in 2015, which gave people renewed appreciation for what Farrar was able to achieve coming out of the wreckage of Uncle Tupelo, the band he and Tweedy formed in their native Belleville, Ill.
In interviews through the years, wounds from those days seemed fresh. Farrar would pointedly not call Tweedy by name, referring to “the bass player” or “the other songwriter.” But now he sounds like he is in a different place.
In a January interview in No Depression, the Americana/ alt-country chronicle that takes its name from the first Uncle Tupelo record, Farrar said, “Tweedy and I have started emailing lately. I think we both realize there are so many other things to worry about other than the differences we had in the past. Things like sending our kids out into the world. Way more important things like that to tend to.”
And in our interview, I broached the subject by asking about a tweet from Jason Isbell, the singer-songwriter who also came from a band, Drive-By Truckers, with a surplus of superb songwriters.
“I think we can now safely say that both Son Volt and Wilco have turned out to be better than Uncle Tupelo. #AltCountryTake,” Isbell wrote in early March. It drew a long stream of responses, proof that the Tweedy-Farrar split still resonates deeply with fans of their music.
“I think Jason puts it succinctly, yeah,” Farrar said. “It was too many songs for one band, essentially. Jason has a similar perspective to draw from there.”
Farrar said he got back in touch with Tweedy recently after he discovered some old Uncle Tupelo demos. “They essentially were demo songs for the second Uncle Tupelo record, ‘Still Feel Gone,’” he said. “I thought they were good representations of what Uncle Tupelo was doing at the time. It was us just kind of powering through all of the new songs that we had been doing live. I felt like it was something that should be looked at (for possible release). I communicated with Jeff via email so that was good.”
A Tweedy representative confirmed the contact and said the two have worked “amicably” on past Uncle Tupelo reissues. Farrar isn’t sure yet whether this material will see the light of day, but he sounded happy that it put him and Tweedy back in touch.
“I think it’s good,” he said. “After a long stretch of not communicating, I thought it was good that there’s some communication going on. … I wish Jeff all the best, you know? I think we both have more important things to think about than old band disagreements.”