In the early ’90s, fans and critics lauded Jay Farrar as a pioneer. He blazed the trail for the fledgling alt-country genre with his former band, Uncle Tupelo. His next project, Son Volt, showed no sign of halting the creative spirit, culling from the same poetic ilk that buoyed his former outfit. The heralded success of both bands propelled Farrar to icon status.
Presently, whispers of vulnerability have begun to rise in volume. In 2004, Son Volt re-formed after five years apart to perform the song “Sometimes” for the Alejandro Escovedo tribute, Por Vida. But offers to regroup for his new album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Transmit Sound/Legacy), were snubbed by his former band mates. Seven years after the last Son Volt album, Farrar decided to recast the band with a new lineup.
“I felt like the other guys had a chance to make it happen, and they decided against it,” Farrar says in a phone interview. “At first, it was a devastating thing for me. [But] I regrouped because I was anxious to record. I felt like the songs were meant to be Son Volt recordings.”
How appealing is a new Son Volt if only one of the original musicians — even if it’s Jay Farrar — is back?
To further complicate things, Farrar finally bared all in Relix to famed journalist Anthony DeCurtis. For 10 years, he’d been silent about his feud with former Uncle Tupelo mate and present Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy. Stories of Tweedy hitting on Farrar’s present wife and being confrontational when Farrar tried to peacefully end Uncle Tupelo are just a smattering of the dark episodes Farrar revealed to DeCurtis.
Some could write Farrar’s confessions off as jealousy, a chance to steal publicity from Wilco’s limelight. Suspicions also arose when Farrar’s new album invoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie. Part of the album’s title, Okemah, is actually the small town in Oklahoma where the political songster was born. Wilco and Billy Bragg had already traversed that territory in 1998 with Mermaid Avenue (Elektra), an album of reworked Guthrie tunes.
Has Jay Farrar become the tragic hero of his own movement?
“[Alt-country] is not necessarily a part of the music I do or listen to,” Farrar says. “I don’t worry about [the label]. I just keep creating music.”
His solo efforts are indicative of this self-professed branching out. Sebastopol (Transmit Sound) was what Farrar coined his “synth” period. The next album, Terroir Blues (Transmit Sound), found Farrar tinkering with what he called “space junk” or digital sampling. Still, his desire to play with other people led him back to his former band.
“I started to miss the idea of working with a group,” Farrar says. “I did a lot of primarily solo-oriented performing and recording. I played shows with one other person. I was beginning to miss the group concept, and gradually began to get back in that mind frame with the group Canyon. From there I decided to put out Son Volt again.”
Roads not taken
Okemah rocks as hard as the old Son Volt offerings, but it barely whiffs of alt-country, with only one song brandishing a pedal steel. And Farrar didn’t bemoan his fate of losing his old members for long: It only took him two weeks to assemble a band.
“I called some friends to help out. Dave Bryson, the drummer, I’ve known from Canyon. Andrew Duplantis, the bass player, I knew because he opened some shows for Son Volt. And Brad Rice, the guitar player, I met specifically for this project.”
The band rose to the challenge of live tracking, and the end result had critics fawning with praise. Entertainment Weekly called the new lineup “tighter,” and the New York Times found the album to be “an idealized corner of pop music.”
By invoking Guthrie, Farrar wasn’t borrowing from Mermaid Avenue: His inspiration was born of negativity from a different realm.
“The songs were written during the run-up to the 2004 elections,” he says. “That’s why some of those issues and ideas were being bandied about.”
And Guthrie has coursed through Farrar’s veins since an early age. His father, “Pops” (who passed away in 2002), was a big Guthrie fan. And the legacy lives on: For a year, Farrar’s own son requested “This Land is Your Land” every day.
In fact, Guthrie is only mentioned once on Okemah — on the track “Bandages and Scars.” Other topics include skewering President Bush on “Jet Pilot,” praising lo-fi goodness on “Gramophone” and revisiting the musicians’ highway on “Afterglow 61.”
His issues with Tweedy seem to have subsided. The talk with DeCurtis apparently exorcised a lot of demons — and Farrar maintains he never felt a sense of competition with his Wilco counterpart, but conceded that “Jeff may have a different answer.”
Anyone who sees Farrar perform “Medication” on the accompanying DVD (part of the dual-disc offering that comes with the Okemah package) will have difficulty finding any blemishes in his playing. The subdued stare that Farrar wears like a tattoo is offset by an onstage intensity that suggests a musician with a lot to say. Not many performers can captivate in a solo situation, but “Medication” shows a man who can channel all attention to the stage.
And if there’s still any question of Farrar’s staying power, the final track, “The World Waits for You,” puts it to rest. The song evokes bravery in the face of turmoil; Farrar even valiantly teeters on an unfamiliar precipice by playing piano on the last track.
It is, admittedly, an instrument he has yet to conquer. But the attempt falls in line with the new start — the new optimism. Farrar sings: “Find strength from the words/ Of those that went before/ Take what you need/ But leave even more.”
[Hunter Pope writes Xpress‘ weekly local-music column “Earful.”]
Son Volt plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Friday, Sept. 23. 9 p.m. Earlimart opens. $17 ($15/advance). 225-5851.