Why Jay Farrar of Son Volt Is Digging into Blues Music History

Son Volt's latest deep dives on the blues.
Son Volt's latest deep dives on the blues. David McClister
Son Volt fans might find the title of the band’s new release, Notes of Blue, an unsurprising choice. A blue mood or a sad vibe is expected when you press play on one of the band’s offerings.

Jay Farrar formed the band with a couple of other members of Uncle Tupelo way back in 1994, when Tupelo called it quits. His counterpart in that band, Jeff Tweedy, went on to form Wilco, and both camps have consistently produced songs weighty with emotion ever since. Both have given a giant boost to Americana music and inspired many younger acts to sprout up with their own roots-y interpretations.

In the case of Son Volt’s recent record, the title isn’t just a reference to the hangdog state of mind, but to the blues style of music, directly. Farrar says that even though the mix of country, blues, and folk is always a part of the Son Volt dynamic, the goal of this record was to put the spotlight on the blues, especially the early years.

“I love the music and fingerpicking styles of people like Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell,” Farrar says, “and I devoted time to learning and practicing it to be able to bring some of that into this recording.” He’s humble about his own abilities in relation to those seminal artists. But when you take a listen to tracks like “The Storm,” whose direct and minimal plucks drive the song home with the force of a semi, they tell you all you need to know about his dedication and skills.

It’s not just the influence of elder bluesmen that’s guiding his fingers these days. Farrar also dove head first into the intricate guitar work of English folk legends, including the master of sadness in both guitar and vocals, Nick Drake. Farrar is pretty committed to continuing to explore the depths of music history. “There’s just still so much that I’m always discovering,” he says. And that’s evident, given his take on a tune of Irish rebellion that’s offered as a digital download with Notes of Blue, along with one other bonus. Titled “Ballymena,” it’s named after the Irish town that faced an uprising in 1798.

New music is on his radar, too. With much of his passion dedicated to catching up on the songs that came before him, Farrar says he counts on touring as a great way of hearing and seeing what’s new. “We get to play with a lot of newer acts, and at some festivals,” he says. “It really helps in getting turned on to new things.”

As far as touring goes, Farrar’s not yet grown tired of the travel. “We’ve heard that there are a lot of younger or newer bands that like to do just a couple of days here or there, but when we tour, we still do it as extensively as possible. As you can see from our schedule, it’s generally like six days on and one day off.”

When he has downtime, Farrar continues to pen new songs. He says there are already a handful of tunes that are geared for a future release. Until then, there’s more than plenty to embrace and enjoy on Notes of Blue. From soulful crushers like “Back Against the Wall” and “Midnight” to blistering movers like “Static,” it’s not an easy ride, but it is an exhilarating one. Punch a wall or shed some tears, sometimes both at once. Ain’t that the beauty of a Son Volt record, though?

Son Volt is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, April 29.

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Amy Young is an arts and culture writer who also spends time curating arts-related exhibits and events, and playing drums in local bands French Girls and Sturdy Ladies.
Contact: Amy Young