Son Volt’s Jay Farrar on His New Album and Woody Guthrie 

Before I officially begin my interview with Jay Farrar, who spoke to me over the phone from his home in St. Louis in advance of Son Volt's upcoming concert at Lafayette's, I have to tell him how much I love New Multitudes, the 2012 Woody Guthrie tribute album Farrar teamed up with other alt-country superstars to make. "I learned a lot just working with Woody Guthrie's lyrics and writings," Farrar says.

Farrar, a native of Belleville, Illinois, "where Uncle Tupelo got its start," is no stranger to protest songs, even before New Multitudes or Son Volt's new album, Union. As a founding member of Uncle Tupelo, a sort of alt-country Yardbirds from whence sprang both Son Volt and Wilco, Farrar has been drawing on the protest traditions of roots music, folk songs, and even punk since 1987. With Son Volt, Farrar has continued to both mine and morph American musical traditions, and Union, released this March, is no exception.

click to enlarge Son Volt - DAVID MCCLISTER
  • David McClister
  • Son Volt

It's convenient that our conversation begins with Guthrie because Union has more than just a thematic relation to the legacy of America's great protest singer. "Some of the basic tracks were recorded at the Mother Jones Museum and the Woody Guthrie Center," Farrar explains. "Songs like 'Reality Winner' and 'The 99' I felt would be best taken out of the studio and into a more challenging environment.

"There was an inspirational element to just being there," Farrar continues. "Especially the Woody Guthrie Center, where a lot of the artifacts associated with Woody were. The handwritten lyrics to 'This Land Is Your Land' were literally right in front of the microphone as I was recording. There was a vibe."

There is certainly a vibe on Union — of searching for harmony in a landscape increasingly more dissonant. It's an atmosphere set up on the album's first track, "While Rome Burns," and carried through the album. "Like Orwell's doublespeak/They're taking their cues/And we fiddle while Rome burns," Farrar sings over a bed of acoustic guitar.

"What I was getting at was talking about the distortion of truth and reality in modern democracy," Farrar says. "If I was really trying to get a message across, it was that there's so many forces dividing us right now. I think I was trying to put forth the idea that stoking the cultural divide is not the way to go," he continues. "We have to find some way to get back together. Obviously, I don't have the answers, I was just trying to put some ideas out there."

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"When Rome Burns" takes its shots at titans of industry, those who can afford to think and live frivolously while those around them — those who support them — struggle to survive. "I feel like it is a responsibility to write what I'm seeing around me," Farrar says, admitting that his frustration with the current political and cultural moment was a driving force when he began writing the songs that would make up Union. "I hope people do focus on the title of the record and on the song 'Union.'"

In the spirit of unity, the album isn't totally given over to protest. "Midway through, I felt like a more balanced record would be a stronger record," Farrar says. "Songs like 'Devil May Care' and 'The Reason,' 'Holding Your Own' ... those came out of that." In true rock-and-roll tradition, the album's lead single "Devil May Care" is a song about playing music. Throughout the album, the band's latest line-up, with Mark Spencer (piano, organ, acoustic slide, lap steel, backing vocals), Andrew DuPlantis (bass, backing vocals), Mark Patterson (drums and percussion) and Chris Frame (guitar), mesh telepathically with Farrar's vision: a fitting celebration of what unites us, of shared spaces and moments of harmony. It invites us all to get together and craft some sort of union. Embracing that harmony even as it points a finger at current cultural dissonance, Son Volt's Union is an album for its time.

Son Volt performs with special guest Old Salt Union at Lafayette's Music Room Wednesday, June 26th, 8 p.m.

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