His old band helped coin the No Depression label, a precursor to the catchall term known as Americana, but for Jay Farrar, Son Volt’s sound is rooted in the American heartland.
It’s only natural, he told The Daily Times recently: He cut his teeth with Uncle Tupelo, but when that band broke up in 1994, he positioned Son Volt as both an evolution of that group and a launch pad for an exploration of other sounds. After exploring country on 2013’s “Honky Tonk” and blues on 2017’s “Notes of Blue,” he returned to his roots for 2019’s “Union” and “Electro Melodier,” released earlier this year.
“‘Honky Tonk’ and ‘Notes of Blue’ were sort of thematic inspiration albums, whereas ‘Union’ and ‘Electro Melodier’ were somewhat of companion albums, with the focus on melodic song structures and things that I certainly never left behind,” Farrar said. “I briefly left the Midwest for a while, but I never left being more than 30 minutes away from the Mississippi River. The music and ideas that historically followed the Mississippi River up and down act as sort of a musical conduit, and that’s where I feel most comfortable.”
Farrar and Jeff Tweedy tapped into those currents when they formed Uncle Tupelo in 1987, and the band cemented its place in roots music history by fusing traditional folk, mountain ballads and Bakersfield country with the punk and metal sounds they grew up on. They left behind a four-album body of work that stands as a foundation stone for the Americana movement, before the term was even coined, but no sooner was Uncle Tupelo done than Farrar was in the studio cutting “Trace,” the debut album by Son Volt.
The band scored a modest college rock hit with the single “Drown,” and Rolling Stone named the album one of the best albums of 1995. The band followed with “Straightaways” in 1997 and “Wide Swing Tremolo” in 1998 before Farrar took a seven-year break to focus on solo output; when he reconvened Son Volt for 2005’s “Okemah and the Melody of Riot,” it was with a new lineup. Two additional albums (“The Search” and “American Central Dust”) followed before Farrar pivoted toward those thematic records exploring specific genres.
“Union,” in a way, was a return to form, and the plan once 2020 dawned was to spend the year touring on it, Farrar said. COVID-19, however, had other plans.
“The way the touring and recording cycle works, we would have been doing some recording anyway, but really with the shutdown, we focused on writing and recording,” he said. “This time around, I wanted politics, which were on the forefront of ‘Union,’ to be a little bit more in the backseat, so to speak. It certainly wound up in some of the songs, but the idea was just to be inspired by bands like Big Star and Badfinger.”
Farrar, however, can’t avoid topical subject matter even if he tried. He’s too attuned to the state of the affairs, and too beholden to the tradition of roots songwriters using music as a mouthpiece to address inequity. While those themes find their way into a number of songs on “Electro Melodier,” from the Crazy Horse-ramshackle rock of “The Globe” to swaggering shuffle of “Arkey Blue” to the lovely ache of the pedal steel-driven “Sweet Refrain,” life in America circa 2020 is all over the record, but never more obvious than on the song “Living in the USA,” a spiritual successor to Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” or Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
And while COVID is still a factor in the day-to-day operations of Son Volt, Farrar is grateful to be out on the road again. The band will perform Tuesday at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville, and the ability to take the stage, albeit under COVID safeguards (a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination is required for Bijou ticketholders), is a lane in which he’s most comfortable, he said.
“We’re looking forward to getting back out there,” he said. “The only other thing I did (during the pandemic) was make Limoncello (a lemon liqueur) out of all this extra Everclear I bought, thinking I was going to make hand sanitizer.”