Jay Farrar talks about how new tunings, new instruments, and old music inspire Notes of Blue, which may be his legendary Americana band’s last album.
Jay Farrar, frontman of Son Volt and cofounder of the seminal alt-country act Uncle Tupelo, just turned 50. He’s had immense influence on a generation of Americana songwriters, but he feels like he’s still learning how to make music himself.
It is that learning process that inspires much of his songwriting. For Son Volt’s latest album, February’s Notes of Blue, Farrar explored three guitar tunings, each associated with a particular musician: blues ancestors Skip James and “Mississippi” Fred McDowell and English folk singer Nick Drake. Before that, he learned pedal steel guitar during the making of Son Volt’s Honky Tonk — though he left playing the new-to-him instrument to Brad Sarno and engineer Mark Spencer, “people that knew what they were doing,” he says with a chuckle.
Asked what is on the road ahead of him as he passes the 50-year mile marker, what he still wants to accomplish, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.
“I guess there’s always more instruments to learn, more tunings to learn,” he says by phone a few weeks after his half-century birthday. “That’s kind of the framework that I approach it with, sort of one thing at a time. Pedal steel is always going to be there, something I continue to learn and progress at.”
As for the three tunings he worked with in Notes of Blue, those of James and McDowell provided a gateway into exploring the album’s namesake genre, which has been an essential influence on just about every form of pop music to follow. Blues is also a key part of the history of St. Louis, which Farrar calls home and which is home to the National Blues Museum. Even as a teenager, Farrar says, he would find a way to get into clubs to catch blues acts. Over the years, he’s created blues-influenced songs, like “Buzz and Grind” with his side project Gob Iron and “Damn Shame” on his 2001 solo album Sebastopol, but he decided to really focus on the genre this time. The melancholy folk of Drake may seem like an outlier among the three influences he cites for Notes, but Farrar finds a connection.
“Even though Nick Drake was English, he was also into the blues, and I just felt like there was a commonality of purpose there — fingerpicking being one of them — that all those guys did,” he says.
Learning those new tunings and guitar voicings was a catalyst for creating new songs, Farrar says, as has been learning pedal steel and piano on previous efforts.
“You’re going over ground that everything is new, everything is a challenge,” he says. “That definitely can be inspiring. There’s definitely a mystique, I think, attached to all three of those guys and all three of their tunings, so for me, it was a learning experience. It just felt good to be playing with those tunings and seeing what was there.”
Farrar used the Drake tuning, which drops the low E string two full steps down to C, for the new album’s opening track, “Promise the World.” The down-tuning gives the guitar a deep and somber sound appropriate for a song about disappointment, and he thought the song would make for a good transition from the previous Son Volt LP.
Another song where the dropped tuning really makes a difference is on the gorgeous, soothing “Cairo and Southern.” Without his notes from the session handy, Farrar wasn’t certain but thinks that one used the McDowell tuning. That would seem appropriate, as the tune has the droning, hypnotic quality and the rattling buzz of slackened strings prominent in McDowell’s work and that of other bluesmen of his era.
Named not for the Egyptian capital but for the all-but-abandoned Southern Illinois city that suffered a long economic decline as rail and highways ended the ferry business, “Cairo and Southern” juxtaposes beatific echoing slide guitar and piano plinks with lines about the longings and resignation of a troubled mind.
“There’s sort of a desolate beauty to that town when you go through it,” Farrar says. “Its heyday was many, many years ago, when the shipping trade was the bulk of the economy. You can see a lot of potential in that town, and essentially that’s what I was thinking about. Back in the early years of the blues, ‘catching a train to Cairo’ always sort of represented a way out, a way to adventure, a way to a different experience.”
The plight of Cairo, Illinois, is an extreme example of the kind of economic downturn that has so frustrated American working-class families and was a motivating factor for voters in last year’s election. Politics weren’t the main topic on his mind during the recording of this album, he says, though “Cherokee St.” does take “kind of an anti-incarceration stance, you know, where the prevailing method of dealing with anything in this country is put people in jail and just forget about them.”
Politics will definitely be an inspiration for his next album, though. Even before the inauguration, he had already written five songs in the wake of the presidential election and plans to write “a lot more.”
“The songs are overtly political, I think, but there’s definitely reason for hope, and that’s why I write,” Farrar says. “You can see so many divisions in this country, and that’s one thing that needs to be addressed, I think. There has to be a way to find a commonality of purpose.”
One new song, he says, “deals with the 99 percent, and the 1 percent having most of the wealth, and the lack of wealth distribution. But most of that preceded the recent election.”
As for where those songs end up, though, it seems unlikely they’ll be on a Son Volt record.
“I think, realistically, this could be the last Son Volt tour,” he says. “It’s been a great 20 years, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to create and perform with Son Volt, but everything has an endpoint, and the music industry in general these days is kind of quixotic.”
He adds that he’ll always do music in one way or another, but doesn’t know what’s next. And while that news may give Son Volt fans a case of the blues, there is a potential silver lining: Farrar has been in communication with Jeff Tweedy, the other Uncle Tupelo songwriter — who went on to form Wilco — about releasing some demo tapes that date to the period between No Depression and Still Feel Gone.
Farrar says one or two may have ended up released in some form or another, but many are mostly unheard. They capture the period between those two albums, when the well-rehearsed touring Tupelo was in fine road-sharpened form, he adds. Whether they are released, though, depends on if Sony’s Legacy Recordings division, which put out the most recent Tupelo reissues, is interested.
Farrar has friends at the label and seems hopeful, but he doesn’t know for sure what will happen with the demos. It’s hard to imagine any record company seeing unreleased Uncle Tupelo tracks as anything but a potential bonanza, but such is the record industry these days.
“We’ll see. I don’t know,” he says. “We’ll see how it shakes out.”
Son Volt is on tour in support of Notes of Blue, which was released February 17 via Thirty Tigers. Visit www.sonvolt.net to order the album and find show dates.
From the April 2017 issue.