American Son

Jay Farrar isn't much of a talker. Son Volt's 29-year-old singer/songwriter comes across in conversation like a man in desperate need of a nap. His voice is low and lazy, his thick, Midwestern drawl stretching what few words he utters into slow, groggy sentences.

"It's safe to say I'm not the life of the party," Farrar admits in a phone interview from a truck stop somewhere outside Orlando, Florida. He lets out a short breath that serves as a laugh and adds, "I mean, I've never been a joke-telling kind of guy."

Indeed, Farrar is better known as a song-writing kind of guy. His work with Son Volt and his previous band, Uncle Tupelo, is a minor legend among fans of gritty, heartland music. Farrar writes reflective songs that twist country music around indie rock like a tattered flag around a pole. He sings like he talks--slow and deliberate--making for a world-weary sound that's easy to identify with.

It's the kind of sound that kicks in best when the listener's out on the road, barreling down a lonely stretch of anonymous interstate. Which is where most of Trace, Son Volt's debut CD, was written. Farrar came up with the material last year while driving from New Orleans, his base at the time, to Minneapolis, home of brothers Dave and Jim Boquist, Son Volt's guitarist and bassist. Drummer Mike Heidorn, who played with Farrar in Uncle Tupelo's original lineup, lived along the way near St.Louis, where Farrar was born and raised.

Farrar's travels up and down the country's midsection helped him design a distinctly American scrapbook, as seen through a cracked windshield: "Looking for a purpose from a neon sign," Farrar sings on "Tear Stained Eye," "Hit the road, never looking behind."

"Some of those songs were written during that period, yeah, driving from New Orleans to Minneapolis to practice and record," he says. "Some of them were written in the period before that, too, when I was just sitting around. I guess the idea of getting in a car and driving, that idea sort of appealed to me."

Farrar had plenty of time to fulfill his wanderlust after he put a slowly dying Uncle Tupelo out of its misery by quitting the band in 1994. Before then, UT had put out a short string of near-brilliant indie-rock albums, starting with No Depression in 1990 and ending three years later with Anodyne, the band's major-label debut. Farrar and coleader Jeff Tweedy shared singing and songwriting duties, but in the end the two partners were barely speaking to each other. Farrar pulled the plug after a particularly grinding road trip in support of Anodyne, but he says the band was a ghost long before that.

"It just seemed like it was time to end it," Farrar says of UT's last days. "It reached a point where it wasn't fun anymore."

After Uncle Tupelo keeled over, Tweedy wasted little time in appropriating the considerable UT legacy. He and the remaining members of the band formed Wilco, a Tupelo-type group that released the hazy, tuneful A.M., one of last year's most critically acclaimed CDs. Farrar, in less of a hurry to get back in gear, escaped the wreckage of Tupelo by moving to New Orleans with his fiance. Then he formed his new band, Son Volt, with musicians who lived half a continent away, necessitating the fruitful series of 1,300-mile road trips. Farrar has since moved to southern Illinois, but he sounds like he'd take those long rides again just to feed his muse.

"Being out there, certain lyrics would come to me while driving," Farrar says. He doesn't write them down at the point of inspiration, opting instead to keep the lines in his head for a few days first.

A clear sense of loneliness pervades the 11songs on Trace. "Windfall," an easy, acoustic opener begins with a worn-out Farrar singing, "May the wind take your troubles away/Both feet on the floor/Two hands on the wheel/May the wind take your troubles away."

Equally evocative and highway-conscious is "Ten Second News," a slow, mournful song that stomps with the incessant beat of a Neil Young ballad. The song finds Farrar driving along "sunny Highway 44" in Missouri, past Times Beach, a St. Louis bedroom community that became a 20th-century ghost town a few years ago when it was found to be contaminated with the cancer-causing chemical dioxin.

"Every time I drive by it, I'm sort of in awe," Farrar says of the ill-fated town. "To see it fenced off like that, you know? The abandoned buildings. I think they're now actually tearing down the buildings and putting in an incinerator to burn everything off, all the tainted soil and material."

Farrar knows the Midwest well. He grew up about a half-hour away in modest Belleville, Illinois, a blue-collar, St. Louis suburb where people would rather talk about the past--it's the hometown of tennis star Jimmy Connors and actor Buddy Ebsen--than consider the future. Farrar was raised in a musical family. His father collected old guitars, banjos and mandolins, and everyone in the family knew how to play them. Farrar was 11 years old when he and his three older brothers put together a garage band that played covers at local parties with the enthusiastic encouragement of Mom and Dad Farrar. "At that point, they were glad to see everyone get out of the house," Farrar says, laughing. "They were very encouraging in that respect."

Farrar later discovered acts like X and the Meat Puppets, bands that made his first love, country music, safe for his growing rock and postpunk sensibilities. (Farrar credits Meat Puppets II as a major influence.) Farrar eventually figured that country-flavored alternative rock was what he wanted to play.

"We played a few country songs," Farrar says, "but they were actually sort of second-hand songs, things we learned by the Beatles or Stones. I had a more gradual process of coming to terms with country music, because of the stigma attached to it--Nashville and all that."

Indeed, that slick stain is likely to keep Son Volt far from theglitter and bright lights of "Nash-Vegas." Other scruffy, countrified young bands--ranging from Farrar's stepbrothers in Wilco, to the psychedelic Sparklehorse, to the more traditional Bottle Rockets and the Bakersfield-inspired Derailers--are popping up outside Nashville's fenced-off corn patch. The music industry has come up with a new format, dubbed "Americana," to try to find a place on the dial for these upstart acts, but it would be cool if the country-music establishment could somehow recognize the honesty and soul that such bands bring to the barbecue. That's not likely to happen as long as bland million-sellers like Garth Brooks still trample the countryside.

Farrar says he's encouraged that a scattering of Americana-based radio stations are playing "Drown," the most guitar-driven and pop-smart cut on Trace. But the song is hardly a hit, and Farrar admits he's more surprised than optimistic that the band's made a few late-night playlists. Success, even Americana-style, is so far down the road for Farrar it's out of sight.

"Anything's possible, I guess," he says, raising his voice slightly to fight off the noise of the busy Florida interstate in the background. The sounds are like a choir, confirming Farrar's country credentials.

Son Volt is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 20, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale, with Blue Mountain. Showtime is 8 p.m.


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