It must to be strange being trailed by a shadow stretching back almost 20 years. Hell, it's weird to even bring up Uncle Tupelo to Jay Farrar, who with future Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy formed the band's creative core. Their seminal contributions led to a never-ending parade of bearded 20-something roots artists, and it's hard not to view Farrar's career through that prism. But that's of no concern to Farrar.
"I never got into making music to get good press, or to really sell a lot of records for that matter," says the St. Louis-based bandleader. "I got in it essentially for personal fulfillment, to be able to create. And that's what keeps me going. People definitely get into it for different reasons. Having a creative outlet was paramount to me."
It's not that Farrar has run from his past; he's just more excited about getting onto the next challenge. In 2009 he collaborated with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard on songs inspired by Jack Kerouac's Big Sur as the soundtrack to the feature-length documentary, One Fast Move or I'm Gone.
This past February, he released New Multitudes, an album of Woody Guthrie songs recorded with Will Johnson (Centro-matic), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Anders Parker (Varnaline). Parker and Farrar had previously collaborated as Gob Iron on the 2006 album Death Songs for the Living, while Johnson had played drums in Son Volt for a time. Farrar met James at a Gram Parsons tribute. The four musicians worked together culling lyrics from Nora Guthrie's catalog of her father's songs.
"It was just kind of a coalescence of all these different friendships coming together," says Farrar. "When you bring together a group of musicians from different backgrounds, good things start to happen. That was ultimately a reaffirmation of the reasons you get into playing music — to go down a path you haven't been before."
The album mixes pretty folk ballads like the haunting "Careless Reckless Love," with the title track's lilting four-part country harmonies, as well as the thumping deathbed blues rave-up "No Fear."
Farrar sees these side-projects as a way of venturing outside the more insular world he's created with Son Volt.
"Working with Jack Kerouac's words and Woody Guthrie's lyrics was an opportunity to sort of step aside from what I was normally doing and be inspired in a different way," he says. "There's a tendency with one's own lyrics to be a bit self-analytical."
Farrar still isn't sure how those experiences may have influenced the upcoming Son Volt album, which is planned for an early 2013 release on Rounder Records. As with its 2009 predecessor American Central Dust, Farrar says the album will be more acoustically focused than the band's early work.
"I did not play electric guitar on American Central Dust — the same deal with these new Son Volt recordings. It's drawing more inspiration from acoustic-based music, in this case, Bakersfield country. We did some double fiddle stuff, which I really liked doing a lot, and a lot of pedal steel guitar."
Meanwhile, bank on more collaborative projects down the road. As Farrar is quick to point out, "Cross-pollination's always a good thing in music."