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.