I have a feeling that every night, when the curtains part, before he strums the first chord of “Medicine Hat,” Jay Farrar looks out at the crowd in front of him and cringes. Clearly a shy man, Farrar seems to be uncomfortable in the spotlight. Staring straight ahead, seated in a chair, he sings his intensely personal music to a roomful of strangers who clap and hoot at the wrong moments, and sing along to songs the way they used to with R.E.M, that is, phonetically, since few of Farrar’s lyrics make literal sense. When interviewed, he answers in a low mumble, spending words like they were scarce pennies before payday, frequently only nodding his head or arching an eyebrow. When the day is over, he climbs back onto the tour bus and hunkers down with a book. It is almost as if he doesn’t exist to the world at large outside his music. And I think that suits him fine.
But it’s the music that matters. Farrar formed Son Volt after breaking up the fabled Uncle Tupelo, the band he founded with now-Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy. From the classic debut album Trace, which contained the radio hit “Drown,” and “Windfall,” a song Steve Earle performs every night with the introduction “This is one of the greatest songs by one of America’s greatest songwriters,” to “Straightaways” and the new record, Wide Stream Tremolo, Farrar has become more experimental in his music, and lyrically, more and more veiled. He’s been hailed as one of the founding fathers of the “No Depression” country movement (named for Tupelo’s first album in 1991), and his sound has spawned dozens of sound-alike bands, none of whom capture the hypnotic energy and grace that defines the Son Volt sound.
The new album starts off loud, reminding the listener, in both sound and intent, of R.E.M’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” from Monster. It’s meant to slap you in the face, and does, with distorted vocals and layers of dirty guitar. I asked Farrar if this was intentional on his part, or if the move was prompted by the record company. He bristled and replied: “The record company had nothing to do with it. It was more a process of trying to pick songs that sounded different than the last two albums.”
This is about as long an answer as he gave to anything. Is it worth it, all the non-performing aspects of the music business, like this interview? “No comment!” he answered through a laugh, knowing full well his reputation as a hard interview. He continued: “It becomes part of what you do. In some ways it’s as important as the music- it’s another way for people to relate to you.” Would he continue making music if there wasn’t money in it? “Sure. I’ve been doing it for years.”
Early on, I told him I wouldn’t ask him about his songs – that they were up to the individual to figure out. “Exactly,” he smiled, possibly relieved at not having to explain what a line like “slower than a ten second buzz” (from “Ten Second News”) means. He enjoyed talking about the music of his youth more than his own. Growing up in a household filled with Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers to folk music like the Dillards, Farrar progressed into American punk – in fact, listening to them now, Tupelo’s first records sound a lot like Dinosaur Jr. with a little pedal steel tossed in. He’s covered Gram Parsons and Del Reeves along with Ron Wood, and is clearly a rock and roll fan. I wondered if there was any record he wished he could have been a part of. “Yeah, probably something like “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds. Maybe just sit in the control room and listen.” Live, they have been ending the shows on this tour with a punky version of the Del-Vettes “Last Time Around”, a garage band classic from the Nuggets box set.
The show at Smith’s Old Bar was the best I’d seen them. In the small room, the music swirled and entranced you, with second guitarist, lap steel and violin player Dave Boquist weaving subtle, expressive fills into Farrar’s simple chords. The effect, song after song in the opening acoustic portion of the show, was almost trance inducing. Jay’s low, nasal growl grabs you- even if you don’t understand all of them, you hang on his words. For a brief moment, they make sense. And then the song ends and it’s over. You go home, he goes back to the tour bus and another thousand miles, alone. Like Greta Garbo. With a guitar.