Since the late ’80s, Jay Farrar has been writing beautiful songs about not-so-beautiful topics — dead-end small towns, substance abuse, political malpractice, and the decaying infrastructure of middle America. Over the years, Farrar occasionally has brushed shoulders with the mainstream, first as the co-founder (with Jeff Tweedy) of the pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, and then as the leader of Son Volt, whose 1995 debut Trace is one of the greatest country-rock records ever made. But for the most part, Farrar has cut his own path as a troubadour outside of the pop world. It hasn’t always been easy, but Farrar has remained stalwart, and more consistent than he gets credit for.
With Son Volt’s latest release, the excellent Notes Of Blue, Farrar’s timeless songwriting about working-class people once again seems more of the moment than ever. From his home base in St. Louis, Farrar has an up-close view of so-called “Trump America,” and he writes with uncommon empathy and insight about how hopelessness has accumulated over decades in countless middle-American communities.
Leavening his usual folk and country influences with amped-up Skip James-style blues riffs, Farrar has created one of the first great anti-Trump albums of 2017, though it’s not entirely intentional. (Much of the album’s anti-fascist language doubles as a broadside against the record industry, another haven for no-nothing blowhards.) But still, many of the songs have a queasy resonance. On the album-closing “Threads And Steel,” Farrar writes about an authoritarian figure — “a man going around, taking names” — who scours communities looking for people to evict. Farrar didn’t set out to write an album about the fear permeating contemporary America, but it definitely seeped into his songs.
With a new Son Volt tour just underway, Farrar spoke about six of his best songs and what they say about a side of America that is often overlooked.
“Graveyard Shift” (from Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut, No Depression)
This is the first song on the first Uncle Tupelo record. You’ve been writing songs for almost thirty years now. Do you remember writing “Graveyard Shift” in your early twenties?
Yeah, you know there’s some small-town existentialism in there, “Graveyard Shift” is a metaphor for being stranded in a [small] town. I’m glad you asked me about this song because I think we’re adding it to our tour set list — there are some lyrics in there that will work in the current climate. “Can’t look away / The powers that be might take it all away.” Essentially you are a different person when you’re in your twenties, and now I just turned fifty. There’s definitely an element at times of a cringe factor, perhaps, but in the case of this one I do see some parallels in the political sphere. I think this would have been late ’80/ early ’90s when we were coming out of the Reagan/Bush era. I was kind of thinking about the same things then that I’m thinking about now.
“Windfall” (from Son Volt’s 1995 debut, Trace)
This is one of the great road trip songs ever. It’s very evocative: “Catching an all-night station / Somewhere in Louisiana / It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven.” Were you traveling a lot around America at this time?
When I was writing songs for the Trace record I was leaving New Orleans and making the drive [north] to rehearse and record. At the time there was no satellite radio, at least I didn’t have it. So, there was an all-night station broadcast out of New Orleans on A.M. with a show called “The Road Gang” that played old country and trucker songs. Basically, it was fuel — listening to that station was fuel for long drives and it shaped the idea that I wanted to record Trace with some steel guitar and good old instrumentation.
This is one of the only Jay Farrar songs that could be credibly described as “happy.”
That’s one reason why it’s a song that I want to play. Put it in the set list!
“Ten Second News” (from Trace)
This is not a happy song. “Driving down sunny Forty Four Highway / There’s a beach there known for cancer waiting to happen.” Again, very evocative. But also very bleak. But it’s also maybe my favorite song of yours.
The point of origination was just outside of St. Louis. There was a small town called Times Beach — it was evacuated due to dioxin contamination in the 1980s. The town had a lot of dirt roads, [and] at one point contractors sprayed oil contaminated with dioxin on the roads to keep the dust down and dioxin just happened to be one of the most toxic substances in the world to humans. So its was a big deal, the town was evacuated. The town was no more and it was in the local news for decades and it left an impression on me. Enough to put it in a song.
Did you feel like that town was a metaphor for something?
More of a cautionary tale, I guess. If we’re polluting our environment, we’re not gonna make it.
“Cahokian” (from Farrar’s 2003 solo LP, Terroir Blues)
This is another beautiful song about decay. What is it about decaying institutions and civilizations that interests you?
Maybe it came from those old commercials in the 1970s with the Native American guy that’s shedding tears when streams are being polluted and people are throwing trash out. I can certainly remember back when it was very normal to just be throwing their trash out the window of their car.
“Cahokian” references an ancient culture that originated near St. Louis about 1,400 years ago.
When you drive east out of St. Louis there’s a large earthly mound created from garbage with bulldozers and pipes with flames burning off gases, and that’s on the left side of the interstate. And then on the right side of the interstate there’s another [mound] that was built by a previous civilization. And I was thinking abut the parallels of our contemporary culture and this 11th century mound. There’s different theories about why the old mound builders vanished but they range from over-population to polluting their environment to the point where they had to move on.
I’m sort of directly confronted by that living here in St. Louis. I’ve thought about it ever since I was a young kid because there use to be a store called GrandPa Pidgeon’s, and it used to be the main place to buy musical instruments. This store was on one side of the road and on the other side was Cahokia Mound.
“Lost Souls” (from 2017’s Notes of Blue)
There are some obvious parallels you can make between the imagery in this song — which is foreboding and apocalyptic — and the current political climate. Was that intentional?
I didn’t set out to do that, but with certain songs it just sort of floats to the surface. It’s definitely something I’m thinking about right now, and I’ve already written a handful of songs since Election Day.
There’s a line in the song where you say, “Just pawns in a game of chess / This world won’t give us the time.” Did you have anything specific in mind when you wrote that?
I was thinking about how many great bands and songwriters [there were] over the years and then you never hear of them again. For some of those folks maybe music was a hobby while maybe others could not reconcile the idea of mixing art and commerce. “Lost Souls” just kind of wound up being a song to them, to the bands and performers that I had hoped to see again but never did.
“Threads and Steel” (from Notes Of Blue)
When I first heard this song, I had to check in the liner notes, because I assumed it was an old blues song. You’ve said that you listened to a lot of blues while making this record.
I had a grade school friend that used the expression “go to hell hack” and I always wanted to put that in a song. [Laughs] For the most part, I was just using word play to try to describe an authoritarian figure. There’s a bit of Donald Trump in there. I guess from my perspective it could have represented the guy at a record company that tells you to take your music elsewhere. That could be one thing I was thinking of.
“Threads And Steel” is a dark way to end the record — it’s like the last scene in a movie where the devil suddenly re-appears. Why did you choose to end Notes Of Blue that way?
I don’t think it was intended to be that quite apocalyptic or dark — like I said I had some fun with the words while I was writing it so I still see it in that context somewhat even though there’s some heavy stuff in there as well. Yeah, it always seems like I kind of go for the songs that — either in terms of tempo or subject matter — tend to kind of bring everything back down a the end of the record.
Notes Of Blue is out now via Transmit Sound. Get it here. Son Volt’s full tour dates below.
03/07 -– Jackson, MS @ Duling Hall
03/08 –- New Orleans, LA @ Parish
03/09 -– Birmingham, AL @ WorkPlay
03/10 — Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
03/11 –- Saxapahaw, NC @ Haw River Ballroom
03/12 -– Charlotte, NC @ Visulite
03/14 –- Asheville, NC @ Grey Eagle
03/15 — Knoxville, TN @ Bijou Theatre
03/16 — Chattanooga, TN @ Revelry Room
03/17 — Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley
03/18 — St. Louis, MO @ Pageant
03/28 — Kansas City, MO @ Knuckleheads Saloon
03/29 — Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
03/30 — Madison, WI @ Majestic Theatre
03/31 — Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Ballroom
04/01 — Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
04/02 — Ann Arbor, MI @ The Ark
04/04 — Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Small’s
04/05 — Ardmore, PA @ Ardmore Music Hall
04/06 — Boston, MA @ Paradise
04/07 — New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
04/08 — Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade
04/09 — Tarrytown, NY @ Tarrytown Music Hall
04/11 — Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
04/12 — Rocky Mount, VA @ Harvester Performance
04/13 — Newark, OH @ Thirty One West
04/14 — Cincinnati, OH @ Southgate House
04/15 — Louisville, KY @ Headliner’s
04/28 — Indio, CA @ Stagecoach Festival