Son Volt’s Jay Farrar defines success on his own terms

Jay Farrar (front) formed Son Volt in 1994 after the break up of Uncle Tupelo, the seminal alt-country rock band that also featured Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Publicity image. Jay Farrar (front) formed Son Volt in 1994 after the break up of Uncle Tupelo, the seminal alt-country rock band that also featured Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Publicity image.

Boy meets boy. Boys start band. Boys break up. Boys start new bands.

That pretty much leads us to today, with Jay Farrar fronting Son Volt, an alt country/Southern rock band with a relatively strong cult following—and there is also the story of the other boy, Jeff Tweedy, who formed Wilco, a band so popular it’s been called the midwestern Radiohead. But this isn’t a competition, right?

Truth be told, the two boys’ careers have gone along so differently that comparing them is like weighing the merits of a tennis shoe and a baseball cap because some guy once wore them together. But such has been Farrar’s plight. Unfairly or no, his accomplished career has been overshadowed by the success of the other guy that started Uncle Tupelo with him (along with Mike Heidorn) in 1987.

Ahead of his September 24 show at The Jefferson Theater, Farrar took time to talk to C-VILLE Weekly about Son Volt, his career —and answer a question or two about Tweedy.

C-VILLE WEEKLY: Son Volt’s been reshuffled in recent years. What does this lineup have going for it?

Jay Farrar: The idea with this recording (Honky Tonk) was to focus on the pedal steel guitar. There is also a lot of twin fiddle, a sound I found captivating from listening to old 1950s country music recordings, but we are not duplicating that so much live.

Honky Tonk sounds less rock ‘n’ roll to me than past records. Was that intentional?

There are elements of the more high-energy rock stuff live, but not so much on this record. It was a conscious effort to focus on the more country elements from Son Volt’s past. I had been learning to play pedal steel guitar with a local band, and we were playing this country music from the 1950s and ’60s in a honky tonk that’s been in existence since the ’30s. I was just immersed in country music, and when it came time to write songs for this record, that was the natural course.

Is that indicative of where Son Volt is going?

That remains to be seen. There has always been an inspirational duality to Son Volt, and even going back to Uncle Tupelo, there was the electric side and acoustic side. With the last two Son Volt records, we have been more concentrated on the acoustic side, but as long as there are amplifiers and electric guitars, I will always be using them.

So many artists these days are blending genres. Are you consciously going the other way?

From a songwriting perspective, it’s good for any writer to follow whatever genre is inspiring them. Without that, where would The Beatles have been? They followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi around and wrote some great music.

I find there’s something healing about folk music. What do you hope people get out of your music? 

It’s difficult to say what I expect people to get out of my music, but I agree there is an inherent redemptive spirit in folk music. Early country music falls along the lines of blues in my mind. There is a culture of commiseration associated with both, and by listening to that music, you just feel better.

You guys are in the middle of some time off of the tour. How are you using it?

I’ve been doing a lot of painting, not so much writing, but I’m beginning to think about the next project. While I’m touring, it’s more of a process of gathering ideas. After this tour, I will settle into some serious writing. It won’t be specific to any project. I usually just dive into the process and see where it wants to go.

You don’t seem to be a person that has been driven by commercial success over the years.

What was always paramount to me was to have a creative outlet. I feel fortunate that I have been able to do that for as long as I have. I consider having a creative outlet to be success.

What are your thoughts on modern mainstream country, and how does alt-country fit in with it?

It’s important that people still find out about and foster an appreciation for country music from what I consider the most productive and exciting time for country, the ’50s and early ’60s, when there was a convergence of a lot of innovation. In a contemporary sense, country music is essentially any style of music that will sell. Incorporating other genres and styles should be a good thing. It doesn’t always seem to be a good thing, but it could be.

Is there a different response to country music in different areas of the U.S.?

I think early on there were cities that were more conducive to playing music, like Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, and even Athens, Georgia. But now there is an appreciation of country music across geographic and cultural lines. It was the music of the people for so long, and it left an indelible mark that’s still there. It may not always sound the same, but the impact is there.

What’s your relationship with Jeff Tweedy like these days?

I think our relations ended amicably enough. In some ways they could have been better. I was asked by Gary Louris of The Jayhawks to join Golden Smog at one point, and I said sure. I knew Jeff was in that band, and my thinking at the time was that would have been a good opportunity to redefine our relationship. But Jeff didn’t allow it, so here we are. We’ve spoken quite a few times over the years, but we travel in different circles.

You said the two of you have buried the hatchet. Does that mean we’ll see an Uncle Tupelo reunion anytime soon?

Yeah, we’ve buried the hatchet. I don’t see a reunion happening, and it’s not particularly something I would want to happen. But those were the formative years, so they were very important for everyone involved in that band.


Son Volt performs on September 24 at The Jefferson Theater

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