- David Mcclister
- Son Volt: Farrar and company nurture the spirit, if not the sound, of Uncle Tupelo.
Ronnie Wood, the guitarist for the Rolling Stones and Faces, once said the blues is "part of the makeup of modern music. You can't turn your back on the blues."
And so it goes with Jay Farrar, whose group, Son Volt, recently released Notes of Blue, a collection of originals very much indebted to and influenced by this most American of genres. It was an interest that had grown out of Farrar's desire to work on his guitar-playing technique and his yearning to plug back in again.
"I wanted to concentrate on more fingerpicking style guitar," says the Illinois native. "In this case, it meant learning the tunings of Nick Drake, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James. When I was learning all of their tunings, it was kind of like learning a new instrument."
Farrar also found himself getting back into the electric guitar. "It's been a while since I've played solos on our recordings, so this time around I did more electric guitar and brought out an old amplifier that's pictured on the first album, Trace. I brought that amp out again to commemorate 20 years."
The 10 songs on Notes of Blue find Farrar continuing to mine the somber and ethereal timbre that's resonated throughout his band's canon to great effect. His touch ranges from the light and delicate picking and melancholy slide guitar of "The Storm" to the floating-through-the-ether feel of "Cairo and Southern," from dropping a hammer of distorted riffing on the sledgehammer delivery of "Static" to the grinding shuffle that is "Sinking Down."
Not unlike fellow insurgent country visionary Steve Earle, who doled out his fair share of the blues on his mesmerizing 2015 outing Terraplane, Farrar's path to the blues didn't come straight from genre icons like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon. While Earle's early touchstones came through the psychedelicized prism of Johnny Winter and Canned Heat, Farrar's springboard was the British Invasion and classic rock.
"My first exposure to the blues would have been through The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones, before I was old enough to go out to the clubs," he recalls. "Even though I was learning those tunings [associated with] Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James [for this album], it filtered through my other experiences of listening to Tom Petty and ZZ Top on the radio."
That collision of blues, folk and a good bit of punk rock first surfaced when Farrar teamed up in 1987 with Jeff Tweedy in the band Uncle Tupelo. That group helped shape today's Americana genre over the course of four albums before the two songwriters split, with Farrar forming the original edition of Son Volt and Tweedy moving on to start Wilco.
With Son Volt just past the two-decade mark, Farrar has a deep well of music to draw from for the band's live shows. "I try to pick songs from throughout the catalog to represent those different time periods," he says. "I think the set that we're going to be doing for this upcoming tour, there will be several Uncle Tupelo songs. I tried to pick ones that still have relevance to me. It's not easy going back and confronting your 21- or 22-year-old self and identifying what was going on then."