Son Volt puts a pioneer back on the tracks

Back Camera


By Steve Newton

If you spend any time hanging around the Georgia Straight editorial department’s hipster zone-an amorphous area located somewhere between the desks of music editor Mike Usinger and guitarist/rock critic John Lucas, but not too close to senior editor Martin Dunphy-you’re led to believe a few things about popular music. The first is that Ween rules. The second is that Eminem is a genius. And the third is that Uncle Tupelo are the modern godfathers of alt-country.

I’m not one to believe everything High Sheriff Usinger spouts (especially the stuff about Eminem), so when the opportunity comes to chat with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar-a founding member of the seminal Uncle T.-I want details from the man himself. For starters, I’m curious about how his current group differs from the one the hipsters always rave about.

“For most of the life span of Uncle Tupelo, it was primarily a three-piece,” explains Farrar, on the line from his St. Louis home. “We were more into creating as much noise as possible, but it was also very synchronized. With a three-piece you have to fill a lotta space, so we had that certain vibe, whereas now it’s basically just the guys who played on the record, who were brought together quickly. We didn’t really rehearse much; we coalesced as we went.”

The Son Volt that recorded the new CD, Okemah and the Melody of Riot-and which plays Richard’s on Richards on Monday (September 5)-is vastly different from the one heard on the recent Rhino anthology, A Retrospective: 1995-2000. Farrar is the only original member left.

“Back in 2000 I wanted to take a break from touring with Son Volt,” he explains, “and I was looking for a different challenge, which at that time meant making solo records and trying out different sounds and instrumentation. Then after four years of recording the solo records and playing a lot of solo shows I was looking to get back to the band situation. My original idea was to try to re-form the original lineup, and I felt like I did everything I could to try to make that happen. It didn’t, so I called some friends to help out.”

Although original Son Volt members Mike Heidorn and Dave and Jim Boquist are missing from the current lineup, Farrar-who wrote most of the quartet’s material anyway-says there hasn’t been a huge backlash from diehard fans demanding to know where the other guys got to. “I sort of expected people to be asking about them,” he relates, “but people really haven’t, so…”

The music on Okemah finds Farrar in a fairly rockin’ place; some tunes recall the raw, cranked-amp vibe of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, others the jangly propulsion of early R.E.M. The title refers to the Oklahoma birthplace of beloved American folk minstrel Woody Guthrie, whose influence is noted in the gritty opening track, “Bandages and Scars”. Farrar once took a pilgrimage with members of the Bottle Rockets to visit a statue honouring Guthrie.

“I guess what we brought back from it was just a clearer idea of where Woody was from,” says Farrar. “He is someone that I turned to for inspiration, as someone who dealt with topical songwriting and social injustices in a way that no one else really did.”

Farrar picked up his love of Guthrie from his parents’ record collection, and his own six-year-old son has taken a serious liking to Guthrie’s 1952 sing-along anthem, “This Land Is Your Land”. What six-year-old wouldn’t?

“He was really attached to it for a while,” notes Farrar, “but he’s got out of that phase now. He’s just kind of moved on. The last song that he requested was a song by the Pretty Things off their Opera album.”

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