ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON FEB. 20, 2021
By Steve Newton
When Louisiana slide-guitar wizard Sonny Landreth played the Rio Theatre in August of 2019, those who arrived early enough to see the opening act got a real treat. It was a local Mississippi transplant named Robert Connely Farr, who’d been blowing people away with his album from the previous year, Dirty South Blues. Turns out Farr had been contacted online a month earlier by the folks at the Canadian Pacific Blues Society who were promoting the show. They wanted their own copy of the album.
“That was the thing,” recalls Farr from his home in East Van, “that album just kinda took off; there was so much happening with it.
“You guys kinda set that off,” he adds with a laugh, referring to raves reviews by two Georgia Straight scribes, one of whom put Dirty South Blues on his list of the Top 10 Albums of 2018.
After the release of that disc–and before the pandemic hit in March of 2020–things were going good for Farr as a working musician. That year he played several sold-out shows, including one on Bowen Island opening for the Cave Singers. He packed ’em in with Trailerhawk at the WISE Hall. And in January of 2020 he was enjoying a Thursday night residency at the Heatley on Hastings.
Farr moved to Vancouver 14 years ago, and played his first local gig at the Cobalt in 2009 with Jay Bundy Johnson on drums and La Chinga member Ben Yardley on guitar. Since then he’s most often been accompanied by Johnson, multi-instrumentalist Jon Wood, and bassist Tom Hillifer.
Farr’s music in recent years was heavily influenced by 73-year-old Mississippi bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, who he first met in 2017. Holmes lives in Bentonia, a town near Farr’s native Belmont, and runs an old juke joint called the Blue Front Cafe that Holmes’ mother started in the 1930s or ’40s.
“It’s rooted in the Bentonia style,” Farr says of the music he picks up from Holmes. “I call it ‘deep blues’, just because in literature they talk about the deep blues as being blues that’s really rooted in some kind of obscurity. The only place that I play when I go home is that old juke joint, and the only person that teaches me is Jimmy. So that’s what’s been drivin’ this boat for the last few years.”
“The first thing that got me excited was Kiss,” says the 43-year-old, “I’m not gonna lie. I had a stack of Kiss tapes up to my waist. My mom was horrified, and she suggested Bryan Adams of all people. Maybe we can go ahead and make that connection with this article, ’cause maybe Bryan Adams needs a southern-sounding fella for a song or two, and I sure could use some of his [Warehouse] studio.”
Speaking of notable Vancouver recording facilities, Farr’s latest album, Country Supper, was recorded at Hipposonic Studios, home of the original Little Mountain Sound. It was released last November to similar acclaim as that bestowed on his previous platter, which had been released as Robert Connely Farr & the Rebeltone Boys.
“The biggest difference between those albums, for me, was that the last one had my guys that I’d been playin’ with for eight years. For the Dirty South Blues album, that opportunity with [producer] Leeroy [Stagger] presented itself, and I jumped on it as a chance to work with somebody different. But I was kinda torn on that album because I wasn’t workin’ the band that I’d been playin’ with for so long. So when we went on to do Country Supper the biggest thing was, it was my guys.
“And another huge thing was, we had all just been down to Mississippi to play the Bentonia Blues Festival, and something happened there. I mean, my drummer, he was playing with R.L. Boyce, he was playing with Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes. It was just amazing to see the band playing with these other guys for different sets in a festival, and when we got back it was just like lightning, man. We went into the studio and came out with 24 or 26 tracks to chose from. It was amazing.
“And that was right about the time I got diagnosed with cancer,” he confides, “and found out I had to have the surgery. So there was kind of this element of ‘We gotta get this shit done.'”
A month ago Farr underwent his third cancer surgery in three years, and has just been given a clean bill of health.
“I feel pretty good,” he says. “I’m damn sure glad to be here, I tell you that much. And I’m grateful to be in Canada–I’ll say that on the record. I’m grateful for the health care up here.”
Farr’s current state of mind is echoed in the haunting Country Supper track “I Ain’t Dyin'”. “Don’t need nobody to tell me what’s wrong with me,” he croons over gritty, reverberating chords. “Yeah I got a few ideas of my own/Gon’ smoke and drink and have some fun/Until my day is done/Im’a sit and strum this here guitar.”
Since Farr seems determined to live to gig another day, the question arises: if the pandemic were declared over today, where would he most want to play tonight?
“Man…,” he ponders after a deep exhalation, “…like If it was totally safe? You know, just get me down to the ol’ Heatley, buddy. I’ll play a set on that stage. I’d love to see my buddies, you know. See my friends.”