A Conversation with Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt

By Lisa Morgan

The pandemic put the brakes on any kind of 25th anniversary touring celebration for Son Volt’s groundbreaking debut, Trace. Son Volt had just finished an Outlaw Country Cruise when the pandemic hit and sent them into their homes on lockdown. “I had more time to devote to and concentrate on the writing,” says Farrar about his forced quarantine. “We were fortunate in that we had just released Union and toured the country, so we were off-cycle. It was still a rough year, but as a songwriter, I was able to make the most of it.”

For those new to the alt-country/Americana scene, Son Volt is the band Jay Farrar started in 1994 after leaving the seminal group Uncle Tupelo, a band he formed with his high school classmate, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco). Uncle Tupelo’s album, No Depression, helped define the alt- country and Americana genre.

Jay Farrar has always, unapologetically, and authentically written songs that reflect his observations, and has never been afraid to face down the truth. As Farrar stated in his interview with Joshua Tree Voice, “I write what I observe without a whole lot of afterthought.” While most top 40 musicians have noticeably opted out of addressing the pandemic in their music, purposely avoiding terms like “the curve” or “lockdown,” Farrar cathartically tackles it head on in Son Volt’s latest album, Electro Melodier. Less political than its predecessor, Union, this body of work, recorded with keyboardist/ steel guitarist Mark Spencer, bassist Andrew Duplantis, guitarist Chris Frame, and drummer Mark Patterson, reveals a more observational, honest examination of the extreme events we’ve all been forced to navigate. It dances between stark and lonely, and melodic and grateful, alongside guitar-driven gritty reminders that the rocker in Farrar is alive and well.

“War on Misery,” is a strikingly bluesy tune, wherein Farrar sings, “Been on the wander for new ideas and beliefs.” When asked if the lockdown influenced this sense of openness, he concurred. “I would definitely call it a season of mindfulness. Like a lot of folks, there were long hours of being idle, making time to be more mindful. Before then, our lifestyle was pretty much laid out for us. Mindfulness can be difficult, but it’s always better on the other side.”

The average listener would never be able to tell that the song, “These are the Times,” was recorded entirely remotely via Zoom. It was the first song Farrar wrote the first month of the pandemic, when all musicians were forced into hiatus, and it was the only song on the album that was recorded without all members present under one roof. The lyrics, “Takes a steady mind to power through and find news of the heart. Walking backwards, can’t shake out a dime,” were “quite literal,” he shared. “We (Son Volt) tried doing things apart, discussing things over zoom, but it lacked that organic chemistry. We eventually put on masks and got together.”

Long before the global pandemic hit, Farrar had already endured some extreme changes in his career, as well as in the industry itself. Asked if there was ever a “Plan B,” he responded, “I knew that I wanted to sing since my late teens and early 20s. If there was ever a Plan B, it went away back then. For me, what was paramount, was having a creative outlet. Singing every day is cathartic.”

Farrar let out a soft chuckle when asked what grownup Jay would tell younger, 25-year-old Jay, today. “Don’t smoke, and get a lot more sleep,” he answered. “I only smoked for a couple of years, but it created a different vocal element. Some of it wound up on recordings. I would definitely be a lot healthier.”

Son Volt has performed a handful of shows in preparation for their first official tour. “It’s been great finally getting these songs out there,” Farrar shared. “My Nephew, Jesse Farrar, is taking a break to play solo and open for us. He’s normally out with Old Salt Reunion.” When asked what advice he had to give his younger relative as well as any other young musician starting out, he shared, “It all comes down to finding your own voice, and that’s number one. Two, is perseverance. You can always play on the side, but if you’re going to make it your livelihood, you have to persevere.”

Son Volt is ready to return to what they know best after a welcome period of introspection and will be at Pappy & Harriet’s with Jesse Farrar on January 21, 2022. This will be an intimate, indoor show in a very special venue. Paul McCartney and Robert Plant have played on this stage. The venue provides one hell of an opportunity to hear one of modern-day Americana’s founding fathers. Like Farrar says, “It’s a good time to take stock of what’s lost and what’s gained. At this point, we’re not even sure what we’re going to get back.”

Pappy & Harriet’s Presents

Son Volt

with Jesse Farrar of Old Salt Union

January 21
Doors 8:30 pm/Show 9:30 pm All Ages – Indoor Show
Covid policies will be in place. Please visit the Pappy & Harriet’s website for updates.

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