Music just isn’t as political as it used to be, but don’t tell Jay Farrar.
The Son Volt front man is a revivalist in many senses, writing songs from a different time and place than most other acts operating at the moment. There’s one figure, in particular, who has had a profound effect on Farrar’s work, and it’s one with whom Oklahomans are quite familiar: Woody Guthrie.
“Woody seemed to be the first guy to put across the idea that music can change the world,” Farrar said. “I grew up listening to bands like Gang of Four and The Clash, so I was definitely influenced by their political stamp. But I’m sure they were — at least the Clash, I know were — influenced by Woody Guthrie. It’s all one continuum.”
Farrar officially joined the gamut circa 1987, when he and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy formed cult alt-country act Uncle Tupelo in the suburb of Belleville, Ill. The band released four studio albums between 1990 and 1993 before splitting a year later, and shortly thereafter, Son Volt was born.
The two acts are cut from the same whiskey-soaked cloth, with songs and sounds embedded deep within America’s heartland. And while his hometown of Belleville isn’t necessarily known for its rich heritage of country music, Farrar found solace in the city’s blue-collar outskirts during his formative years.
“Once you get out in the surrounding area, country music is more prevalent,” he said. “As a kid it was around me and I didn’t always follow it, but gradually the realization that bands that I was into as a teenager — like The Beatles, they were huge Buck Owens fans.”
Son Volt’s seventh and most recent studio album, the aptly titled Honky Tonk, is more Buck Owens than Patsy Cline, drawing its inspiration from the distinctly rigid “Bakersfield sound” that emerged from California in the 1950s.
“In a lot of ways, we just wanted to focus on the sound,” Farrar said. “On a fundamental level, we didn’t hesitate to go off in different directions, but the overall thrust of this record was acknowledging and paying homage to country music of the 1950s and early 1960s. It was just a very good time period for country music, in my estimation.”
It’s a common conundrum for songwriters, especially those as tenured as Farrar: How do you avoid stagnation while at the same time staying true to your roots? For him, it was a series of solo efforts, a Guthrie tribute album (2012’s New Multitudes) and his recently released autobiography, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs, that helped keep him creatively fit.
Farrar wants no part of the politics, however — unless, of course, we’re talking lyrics.
“It’s understandable why categories and labels get applied,” he said. “The flip side of that is that from the perspective of a writer, sometimes it can be a little bit asphyxiating to be put in a box and told to stay in there. But over the years I’ve gradually realized that it’s more about focusing on the writing and letting the rest play out.”