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Jay Farrar on ‘alternative country facts’ and why he’s super serious about vinyl

“In the end, I was aiming for where folk, blues, and country converge.”

Fusing traditional song elements with your own original ideas to create a unique signature sound is the ultimate goal of many a gifted songwriter, but it’s easier said than done. One man who’s been successfully straddling the lines between past, present, and future his entire recording career has been Jay Farrar of Son Volt. The SV guitarist/vocalist — whom you may also know from his stint in Uncle Tupelo, the legendary band from southern Illinois that jump-started the alt-country movement — has again bridged the genre gap on Son Volt’s new album Notes of Blue[1], which is available now in various formats via Transmit Sound/Thirty Tigers.

One of the keys to the intimate sound of Blue songs like the pedal-steel-driven Promise the World, the acoustic swirl of The Storm, and the tremolo twang of Midnight is the specific finger-picking guitar tunings Farrar chose to honor in the studio. “Working in those tunings is a tribute to Skip James, Nick Drake, and Fred McDowell. It was a chance to connect with icons and heroes,” Farrar explained to Digital Trends. “And it also challenged me in the process, with the idea of not making the same record over and over.”

Digital Trends called Farrar at his homestead in Southwest Illinois before he headed out on tour to discuss the making of Blue, championing vinyl while accepting streaming, and laying down the alt-country template with Uncle Tupelo.

Digital Trends: I really love the production angle you took for the sound of Notes of Blue, Jay. I also think you can trace the overall vibe back to Son Volt’s first album, Trace.

Jay Farrar: The 20th anniversary of Trace [which was released on September 19, 1995] was maybe the catalyst for me writing more songs. And, in particular, one thing I wanted to focus on for this album was playing more electric guitar — and that meant bringing out the amplifier that was used and pictured on the cover of Trace. It’s an old Webster Chicago amplifier that was originally an extension speaker for an old wire recorder that was modified to be an amplifier. I brought that out to mark the 20-year milestone.

Yeah, and it’s a beauty. When you’re winding out on guitar on songs like Static and Cherokee St, you’re pretty much pushing a certain level of distortion with that guitar in the mix. How do you find the right balance so that distortion doesn’t go too far over the edge?

That’s the great aspect of using small, old amplifiers with low wattage. You can turn them all the way up, and the sound is enlightening, you know? It just sounds perfect. It’s distorted, but you can dial it back just a little bit to get right on that fine line between clean and distorted.

Or as you say near the end of Threads and Steel, it’s “five shades of clean,” so to speak…

(chuckles heartily) That’s right, that’s right! That could apply to guitar tones too, I guess.

You go through the permutations of balancing delicate acoustic sounds with gnarly, louder electrified moments. As the album’s producer, you also had to make sure all of their nuances came through in the mix.

Yeah, and another idea I wanted to follow on this record was focusing more on the fingerpicking style of guitar playing. And that meant really delving into the alternate guitar tunings of three guys: Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Nick Drake.

Right. That approach makes me want to call you the official “Major of D Minor.”

(laughs) Yes, that’s the Skip James pentatonic tuning. I also used Nick Drake’s Pink Moon tuning as well. The idea was to not be complacent. Using these tunings opened up new roads to travel down, essentially.

The atmosphere and tone you’ve set here begs for repeat listening. For example, I love going back to hearing that pedal-steel guitar sound on the opening track, Promise the World.

That’s my friend Jason Kardong on the pedal steel there. We had done some shows as a trio out in support of the Trace reissue, and he’s one of my favorite pedal-steel players out there.

Promise the World represents my favorite recording on the album in some ways, because it serves as a bridge to the previous Son Volt recording, Honky Tonk (2013), with the same instrumentation of that pedal steel. But I can’t really pin down what his influences are.

The idea was to not be complacent. Using these guitar tunings opened up new roads to travel down.

I look at it like you guys are like Neil Young and The Stray Gators, and that feel they all got for Harvest (1972).

Oh yeah, right. Who was Neil’s pedal-steel player on that?

Ben Keith. He passed away a few years ago, come to think of it [in 2010].

Actually, I think he might have been cited as one of Jason’s influences. It all makes sense in the end, as I was kind of aiming where folk, blues, and country converge.

I was working on two different groups of songs. One group was more influenced by Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, and the English folk guys, and at the same time, I was working on a group of songs that were more blues-oriented. The end result was there was more fingerpicking-styled guitar, and, like you said, there were some songs that were amped up, and other ones were more acoustic-based.

That all covers the spectrum of styles you like to play. I have to imagine that if it were possible to release this album on a 78 rpm LP, you’d do it.

(laughs) I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s a great idea! I’ll look into that.

I think Jack White has released some 78s through his Third Man Records label. What’s the best way to listen to this album, in your opinion?

Certainly, vinyl in general delivers a tangible aspect in a way a digital download and even CDs can’t. Listening on vinyl also has a ritualistic component that’s good. You can watch the music spin around as you listen.

We’ve talked about digital vs. physical before. As an artist, I’m sure you wrestle with the streaming conundrum. I was looking at Spotify earlier, and you already have over 108,000 listens to Cherokee St and 95,000 to Back Against the Wall, while a vintage Son Volt track like Windfall has over 1.3 million spins. How do you feel about that?

I’d never heard those facts before! They’re not alternative facts, are they? (both laugh)

Only in the sense of if you consider yourself an alt-music artist. Then we’d have to call them “alternative country facts.”

(laughs again) OK, yeah, that’s great. I hadn’t heard those numbers before, but I’m glad vinyl is there to balance everything out. It’s the format I prefer to listen to the most, but certainly the digital component has to be there as well.

I also like that you can also go the hi-res route and listen to 44.1/24-bit downloads where you can get a level of detail on a song like Sinking Down and hear that slide guitar and cymbal work together. Those subtleties get lost with low-grade MP3s.

Vinyl delivers a tangible aspect in a way a digital download can’t. You can watch the music spin around as you listen.

I think what you’re saying is right on. Those higher-res versions definitely sound better, if you can get ’em.

Your first run of vinyl sold out pretty quickly, I see. 

We’ll have more copies for sale as we get out on the road, but like you said, having the pre-release sell out within the first week is great news. It’s encouraging and inspiring in the way that people are listening to the music.

I think it’s important to listen to the songs as a collective group on vinyl if you can, as opposed to, when you’re in the digital realm, just picking a song and then moving on.

By the time we get to the next-to-last song, Cairo and Southern, we feel like we’ve earned it because of the listening journey we took in getting there.

I think that’s true. That song reminded me of the late Henry Townsend, a local blues guy, and Cairo and Southern is my response from a current perspective. Cairo (pronounced “Kay-row”) is almost a ghost town now. It was a boom town in the early 1900s in Southern Illinois at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. But there is a deserted and desolate beauty there. It’s kind of unlike anywhere else.

I make it a point to stop there whenever I can. There’s a lot of interesting old architecture, and it makes you imagine what it was like back in the day.

That has to have inspired some of your songwriting.

Oh, it has over the years. It’s nice to get away from billboards, for one thing. You really do get to see where folks are living and what they’re doing.

I was doing a lot of that for the first Son Volt record, Trace. I even drove up Highway 61, going to a lot of the historical places along the way and learning about some of the folks who live on that route.

And I did more of that in the last two years by going down to Clarksdale, Mississippi to reinforce the idea that the blues was such an important foundation for early country music. That was another catalyst for me to focus more on blues this time around.

Uncle Tupelo put our original stamp on whatever we were doing. It wasn’t like we were sitting down to start a movement.

I think it’s probably fair to say Hank Williams always looms over what you’re doing, to some degree.

Yes, very much. The blues are a foundation element of country music, right from the start. My father played the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams — that’s the kind of music I grew up hearing. I didn’t really embrace it until I was probably 20 or 21, but I eventually got there.

And isn’t that the great thing about recorded history? It’s all out there waiting for us to discover. I’ve now got more than 50 Johnny Cash albums in my collection, but it took me a long time to get into him in such depth. But he was always there waiting for me when it was time to dive in with him.

Yeah, exactly. I’m kind of watching my own kids “evolve” now. They like a lot of hip-hop — a lot of hip-hop — but now they’re finally getting into Nirvana, so maybe they’re halfway to Johnny Cash. We’ll see. (both laugh) It is a little bit different than going to the record store and being part of that record store culture, which is how it started for me.

The vinyl revival has helped with bringing that culture back just a bit.

I also think vinyl brings it back to a more focused level — where you’re actually focusing on one act and one piece of music, as opposed to going into the digital bank of 500,000 songs, or whatever.

Your earlier band with Jeff Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo, has seen some high-grade vinyl releases in recent years. Do you think there’s a generation of listeners who don’t know the No Depression movement was named after your first album?

It’s hard to say. More folks have probably found out about it during the present day than during the band’s run, but that’s to be expected.

Do you see bands like The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers adding to the template you guys set down for alt-country music?

I just look at it from the perspective that Uncle Tupelo put our original stamp on whatever we were doing. I look at it as more of a continuum. It wasn’t like we were sitting down to start a movement, or anything like that. We were just trying to write some songs and see the world, you know?