Everywhere Jay Farrar goes, his reputation shadows him.
People who spend any time with the 30-year-old leader of alt-country heroes Son Volt inevitably wind up shaking their heads and regaling each other with stories.
No, these aren't Hammer of the Gods tales, wherein a debauched rocker with a needle in his arm tosses TV sets out the hotel window between episodes of violating underage groupies.
Nor are these anecdotes about a fragile artist unhinged into a womblike innocence by too much acid (Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Brian Wilson).
In fact, Farrar is unfailingly polite, patient and unassuming.
Only one problem. He simply doesn't talk. Farrar rations words like they're canteens of water in the Mojave. Next to him, a mime would seem verbose. You get the idea.
In one story, an interviewer asked Farrar where he got the name for his band (widely believed to be a combination of legendary recording labels Sun and Stax-Volt Records) and was told that he's not sure. Earlier this year, Son Volt drummer Jon Heidorn revealed to Option that he's known Farrar since they were both in elementary school in the small town of Belleville, Illinois, but that Farrar never said a word to him until their freshman year of high school. Similarly, Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy--Farrar's old partner in the much-loved country-rock band Uncle Tupelo--told Rolling Stone's David Fricke that people could always tell Farrar and him apart, because, "I'd be the one talking. Jay would be the one not talking."
Farrar seems the classic example of a shy kid who turned to music because he couldn't hope to give voice to his soul in everyday conversation. Farrar's stocky and ruddy-faced, but ruggedly handsome in a young Abe Lincoln sort of way, and his eyes tend to project a kind of perpetual bewilderment.
In 1994, Farrar stunned fans by leaving Uncle Tupelo, a band that helped rekindle underground rock's appreciation for traditional music. He temporarily moved to New Orleans when his girlfriend got a job there, wrote a bunch of songs, and launched Son Volt to instant acclaim and surprising commercial success.
It's no small irony that the laconic Farrar has been anointed a spokesman for the rabid underground cult of roots-music fans who've dubbed their movement "No Depression" (a fanzine which took its name from the title of Uncle Tupelo's first album), "insurgent country" and "Americana."
It's a job Farrar is predictably hesitant to assume. By any name, the movement holds little meaning for him. "It didn't hit me until I saw terms like 'insurgent country' being used," Farrar says from his home in St. Louis. "It [the term] is useless to me, and I would never use it.
"It's something that developed completely outside of any involvement from me, so I can't really explain it," he adds. "I'm sure there's some good bands out there, but I don't really know, 'cause I haven't heard 'em."
Instead, Farrar prefers to stick with the old-school giants--Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, etc.--who laid down the ground rules. As he sang on "Windfall," the song of redemption that kicked off Son Volt's 1995 debut album Trace, "Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana/It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven." Clearly, for Farrar, musical nirvana cannot be found with a '90s copyright attached.
Considering how forcefully country music shaped his adult life, it's slightly strange that Farrar can't point to any moment or song that electrified him and made him want to dig further.
"It wasn't one thing," Farrar recalls. "It was more of a gradual osmosis. Hearing that music first from my brother, who was heavily into rockabilly and bluegrass. And my parents would want me to play Hank Williams songs. So I picked up on that stuff."
Along the way, Farrar got sidetracked by his teenage obsession with the Sex Pistols. He and Tweedy formed The Primitives, a band that Farrar says--despite its hard-core rep--"was more of a '60s punk, garage band kind of thing" than a Belleville answer to Black Flag. The Primitives evolved into the rootsier Uncle Tupelo, and, over the course of four years and four albums, it gradually built a devoted clique of country rockers.
In a way, Uncle Tupelo did nothing that Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers hadn't done a generation earlier--make country hip and accessible to a rock audience--but the band's spirited live shows and smart ensemble work helped it transcend the familiarity of its material. This was country that punks could listen to without embarrassment.
But Farrar pulled the plug on it, and the band split into two factions: Tweedy's poppy Wilco and Farrar's Son Volt. Though both Tweedy and Farrar continually downplay any talk of competitiveness, it's inevitable that fans and critics measure their work against each other. After all, who didn't listen to Ram in 1971 without stacking it up against Plastic Ono Band?
Earlier this year, ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn joined Son Volt onstage in New York, with Tweedy in attendance. Of course, the big topic of Tupelo gossip was whether Tweedy and Farrar achieved a thaw in their slightly icy relationship.
"Yeah, we talked a little bit," Farrar haltingly says, sounding about as comfortable as an accused man in asbestos underwear. "It was kind of a monster party scene afterward, so we really didn't get to talk much."
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While Son Volt's debut album had the fresh kick of a Farrar newly liberated from Tupelo's creative democracy, Straightaways offers few surprises. Though the band's working methods changed this time--with a month-and-a-half gap between the album's two recording sessions--the result sounds like an overly predictable sequel to Trace. But, as always, Farrar's high, mournful twang elevates even his simplest material to the level of philosophical insight. On a printed page, a line like "Fate just runs you around," would offer no threat to Whitman, but when Farrar sings it with all the sad resignation he can muster, it somehow feels, well, profound.
"It's not easy to change," Farrar sings on "Last Minute Shakedown," the best song on Straightaways. Farrar makes the line sound like a personal mantra, a rationale for his stubborn commitment to traditional musical values.
"Country music has meant a lot to me over the past 10 years," Farrar says. "I've tried to educate myself about these great artists. I think it's important to pay your respects to these people."
Son Volt is scheduled to perform on Saturday, July 19, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Varnaline (all ages). Showtime is 9 p.m.