For 25 years, Son Volt has been a vehicle for frontman Jay Farrar’s solemn, hyper-realistic alt-country songwriting. Equal parts dirt-caked and elegantly exquisite, Farrar mixes stylish pedal steel, squalls of distorted guitar and downcast vocals better than anyone on Earth—and that includes legendary American rock band Wilco, fronted by Farrar’s ex-songwriting partner, Jeff Tweedy. As another iconoclastic modern country star, Jason Isbell, wrote on Twitter earlier this year, “I think we can now safely say that both Son Volt and Wilco have turned out to be better than Uncle Tupelo [Farrar and Tweedy’s first band].”
More important, with Son Volt, Farrar has kept a laser-focus reworking the broad, deep vein of folk, blues, country and roots rock, resulting in his 2017 album Notes of Blue. Full of experimental open tunings that pay tribute to influences like Fred McDowell, Skip James and Nick Drake, Farrar’s heartbreaking lyrical tales of no-stoplight burgs, drug abuse and crumbling social systems are backed by crackling instrumental fireworks.
“There have been challenges [translating] that album to the live stage,” Farrar tells Folio Weekly from his St. Louis home, after an Australian jaunt. “But after almost a full year and 100 shows of playing Notes of Blues, we’ve got it. You start out on adrenaline, but the band has really come together. We’re in a good place right now.” That should pay off for Florida fans, who get a fresh Son Volt for four shows to close out 2017. “You have to save the best for last, right?” Farrar laughs. “Florida is one of those places we haven’t been in a while, so after going all the way to Australia, we’re happy to get down there.”
Seeing Son Volt at the end of an album cycle for Notes of Blue means we might get to hear fresh material Farrar has written in this turbulent 2017. As Uproxx.com headlined a recent interview, “Jay Farrar Has Been Writing Great Songs about Trump’s America for Nearly 30 Years.” Citing Woody Guthrie as a political folk influence, Farrar says, “I’ve found myself moving in that direction with a few new songs. But I’ve also done that a lot in the past with songs like “Cahokian” [about environmental degradation seen through a Native American’s eyes] and “Ten Second News” [about a Missouri town abandoned in the ’80s after its dirt roads were sprayed with dioxin-contaminated oil to keep the dust down]. It’s hard to say what will influence what I do next, though.”
Given alt-country’s obsession with nostalgia, such thoughts are naturally balanced with celebrations of past achievements. Son Volt’s debut album, 1994’s Trace, received copious 20th anniversary praise, and Farrar expects the same for 1997’s Straightaways, the band’s highest-charting record to date. Farrar and Tweedy, notoriously antagonistic to each other for the better part of 20 years, have even collaborated constructively on reissues of Uncle Tupelo’s landmark albums from the late ’80s and early ’90s. But at age 50, Farrar says he still struggles with such laurel-resting. “Wrestling would definitely be an accurate way to describe [the celebration of old material],” he says. “There are always new things to discover and explore. I’m thinking about what’s going to take me to a place I haven’t been before.”
With Notes of Blue, that place went farther back in American musical history than Farrar had ever gone. Emphasizing that he was aiming for “that place where folk and the blues and country converge,” he says explorations of history are still critical for his musical development. “It definitely took me a while to get to that place,” he says. “I was first introduced to the blues by British musicians, but as I dug around more, I learned artists like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers came out of the blues tradition. So there’s definitely a lot of overlap there.”
That overlap runs both ways. Farrar says he chuckled when his 15-year-old daughter started listening to The Black Keys (“I’m, like, I was listening to those guys 15 years ago!”), but got into longtime cult Canadian country-rockers The Sadies after playing with them for the first time this year in Australia.
Still, the past is a deep well of inspiration for Farrar and Son Volt. You may find revved-up rockers like “Static” or “Lost Souls” the most powerful songs on Notes of Blue. If you’re into Farrar’s mournful acoustica, you’ll like “The Storm” or “Cairo and Southern.” Either way, the album’s classic Son Volt—consistency has always been the band’s strongest suit—while opening new channels of hope, something Farrar isn’t well known for. “Back Against the Wall” is a self-described “rally song,” to remind those facing adversity that “with darkness on your doorstep” you can still “keep your feet on the ground.”
Referencing that fabled mid-20th century period when American art forms like folk, blues, country and early rock ’n’ roll were outlets for citizens of all stripes to escape war, repression, political upheaval and racism, Farrar finishes: “There is hope, even now. We’ve been through a lot worse in this country, so I know we’ll make it through this.”