2020 was not quite what JayFarrar was expecting for the 25th anniversary of Son Volt, the band he startedin 1995 after leaving the seminal group Uncle Tupelo, whose No Depressionalbum helped define the alt-country and Americana genre. The group had justfinished an Outlaw Country Cruise when the pandemic hit and sent them intotheir homes on lockdown.
Instead of a triumphant tourmarking the illustrious landmark, Farrar was forced indoors by the pandemic,and his “Reverie” during that time helped define Electro Melodier, Son Volt’s 10th studio album – andthird for influential Nashville indie Thirty Tigers. The title, taken from thenames of two vintage amplifiers from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, alsodescribes the disc’s unique blend of folk, country, blues, soul and rock – anelectric troubadour with melodies that hit and stick. Social protest songs like“Living in the U.S.A.” and “The Globe,” the former about the promises of thisnation gone wrong, the latter referencing the street protests accompanying theBlack Lives Matter movement, exist side by side with odes to long-termrelationships (specifically his 25-year marriage) in “Diamonds and Cigarettes”and “Lucky Ones.”
Onceagain accompanied by the current Son Volt line up – keyboardist/steel guitaristMark Spencer, bassist Andrew Duplantis, guitarist Chris Frame and drummer MarkPatterson – Farrar takes a slight turn from 2019’s politically pointed Unionto a series of songs that asks questions rather than demanding answers – thinkof “Living in the U.S.A.” as Farrar’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born inthe U.S.A.,” Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” or Patti Smith’s “PeopleHave the Power,” an anthem to unite the populace.
“Ihad more time to devote to and concentrate on the writing,” says Farrar about hisenforced quarantine. “We were fortunate in that we had just released Unionand toured the country, so we were off cycle. It was still a rough year, but asa songwriter, I was able to make the most of it.”
Onelisten to Electro Melodier, which opens with “Reverie,” describingFarrar’s contemplative state gazing out his window, enlivened with MarkSpencer’s “Wichita Lineman” guitar riffs and the lush Big Star melodies, andyou wonder why no other rock ‘n’ roll bands or singer/songwriters are makingalbums like this about what we’re all going through.
“Iwanted to concentrate on the melodies which got me into music in the firstplace,” says Farrar. “I wanted politics to take a back seat this time, but italways seems to find a way back in there.”
Listento the Moog line from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” channeled in “TheGlobe,” or the Led Zeppelin homage in “Someday Is Now,” the nod to gut-bucketMississippi delta blues in the Lightnin’ Hopkins low-tuned guitar stylings of“War on Misery” or Spencer’s haunting slide on the funereal dirge of “The LeveeOn Down,” which takes Andrew Jackson to task for everything from the “Trail ofTears” massacre of the Cherokees to his face on the $20 bill instead of HarrietTubman. The environmentally conscious “Arkey Blue” nods to a honky-tonk inBandera, TX, Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, where Hank Williams, Sr. allegedlycarved his name into one of the wood tables, and even quotes Pope Francis on“turbulent rains never before seen.”
“I’mjust asking the same question, how can so much go wrong in a country that isheld up as an example to the world of something righteous,” explains Farrarabout songs like “Living in the U.S.A.,” in which you can hear doomsayingprophecies like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” set to the guitar riffs ofLou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.”
Stillbased in St. Louis (“It kinda makes sense as a central location for touringbecause all the interstates connect through here”), Farrar was born inBelleville, IL, where he formed Uncle Tupelo with his high school classmateJeff Tweedy. “We had similar musical interests and took it from there,” saysJay modestly about the groundbreaking group.
Farraris grateful to his wife of 25 years, a sentiment which he expresses lovingly on“Diamonds and Cigarettes” – featuring vocals by country singer Laura Cantrell,along with songs like the soulful “Lucky Ones” and “Sweet Refrain,” a song thatcaptures the spirit of Bentonia, Mississippi, home of Skip James along withname checks for local legends Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and the Bluefront Cafe.“These are the Times” was recorded entirely remotely by Zoom, signaling one ofthe new methods of making music ushered in by Covid.
Withtour dates scheduled before the end of 2021, Son Volt is ready to return towhat they know best after a welcome period of introspection.
“It’sa good time to take stock of what’s lost and what’s gained,” said Farrar. “Atthis point, we’re not even sure what we’re going to get back.”
Thesongs of Electro Melodier help remind us to be thankful of what we stillhave – new music from Jay Farrar and Son Volt.
“Daylight brings the clues to the world to life/Make or break gottado what it takes to survive.” “Sweet Refrain”