Monday, April 1, 2013

Jay Farrar Of Son Volt On The New "Honky Tonk"

The last time I interviewed Jay Farrar was roughly a year ago for his contributions to the Woody Guthie-inspired New Multitudes album he made with Yim Yames (Jim James of My Morning Jacket), Will Johnson, and Anders Parker.

I am thrilled to share a recent chat I had with Jay, this time focused on the new Son Volt album, Honky Tonk (Rounder). The new 11-song collection was inspired by the classic Bakersfield honky tonk sound, something Jay has been keeping a close ear to since picking up the pedal steel about two years ago.

Longtime fans of Son Volt will also be glad to hear that Jay and his band have brought the by-now comfortable, and well-worn acoustic sounds to the table, the same ones that keep Trace a mainstay in many record collections. But that said, this is not a nostalgia trip for either classic country or for Jay's earlier post-Uncle Tupelo work.

Honk Tonk is a new Son Volt record, and one that firmly stands on fertile ground. It is a lasting work that touches upon the band's past, while pushing ahead and building upon their last full-length player, American Central Dust, as well as Jay Farrar's recent accomplishments as solo artist, collaborator, and author.

When did you begin playing pedal steel?

Jay Farrar: I’ve been playing the pedal steel guitar for about 2 years. I’ve had lap steels for a long time but the different pedal and tuning combinations on a pedal steel really required a certain focus.

A guy at Scotty’s Music in St. Louis set up the steel and set me on the right path. A local legend has it that Jerry Garcia got his start on steel at Scotty’s...

Can you talk about playing with your St. Louis-based band Colonel Ford?

Jay: It was a trial by fire experience playing out live with Col. Ford, which is actually a great way to learn. We (Col. Ford) played  quite a few gigs at a venerable old honky tonk just outside of St. Louis called “Stovall’s Grove” that has been in existence since the 1930’s.

What were you listening to for inspiration? Which artists and albums served as your roadmap for you?

Jay: I became immersed in the music of George Jones, Wynn Stewart, Ray Price and Buck Owens. There’s such an inherent energy to those late 1950’s and early 1960’s recordings. The use of “twin fiddle” was a parallel sound of George Jones and Ray Price while the pedal steel guitar playing of Ralph Mooney was  the common thread with the Bakersfield contingent of Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart.

When did you begin working up material for what would become Honky Tonk?

Jay: When I started the process of writing songs for this record, it was really just second nature that the songs would be inspired by and reflect the "honky tonk" realm. There’s always been a duality to Son Volt in that there’s acoustic songs and electric songs, but this time the focus was the fiddle and pedal steel guitar aesthetic with an emphasis on the “twin fiddle" sound.

That’s what I had been listening to and that’s what I had been playing out live with Col. Ford. I wanted to acknowledge and pay homage to honky tonk music, yet not feel limited by the parameters. Some of the songs just needed to stretch out a bit like "Hearts and Minds", “Livin On” and “Shine On”. The instrumentation on those songs like Cajun fiddles or distorted harmonica, or the tremolo effect on pedal steel, is not typical honky tonk fare, but that’s what the songs needed.

Was there any overlap between the New Multitudes album?

Jay: There was some overlap with New Multitudes and writing Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs. I had started doing some writing for the book just before we started touring for New Multitudes. We had more touring planned that fell through, so I really started focusing on the book. When trying to make sense of the world it is only natural to turn to Woody Guthrie’s snippets of wisdom like “Don’t let anything knock your props out from under you" or “Let your plans come out of mistakes”.

How does this record relate and/ or differentiate itself the last Son Volt album, American Central Dust?

Jay: One aspect that’s consistent on American Central Dust and Honky Tonk is that I played only acoustic guitar on both. Lyrically, this collection of songs on Honky Tonk is much more thematic that anything I’ve done before.

Listening to country music from the 50’s and 60’s for inspiration allowed these songs to flow creatively. It was a culture of commiseration and I was drawing from the lexicon of the times. I was writing within the “heartache and heartbreak" framework, yet hopefully there is still room for a redemptive spirit that I tried to put into these songs.

Was there a tune(s) that set the direction for Honky Tonk?

Jay: A few days into the recording we had a few songs behind us like “Brick Walls” and “Seawall” which established a core sound for the record. On “Hearts and Minds” we had to experiment until we finally settled on a Cajun vibe.

With most all Son Volt recordings prior to Honky Tonk, the emphasis was on doing a full live band in the studio and then adding instrumentation as needed. The approach for Honky Tonk was different in that it was more of a skeleton crew. So I was just doing vocals and acoustic guitar, and then Dave Bryson on drums with Mark Spencer on bass.

This kept things minimalist at the start, which allowed for more flexibility to change up tempos and the direction that each song needed to go. I think of it as “The Rolling Stones method": record live, raw tracks, and then add some polished instrumentation to it later.

I should also mention that Brad Sarno and Mark Spencer played pedal steel on the record. I didn’t play pedal steel on this recording. Brad ("Hearts and Minds", "Brick Walls", "Wild Side", "Tears of Change", "Seawall"). Mark ("Down the Highway", "Bakersfield", "Livin On", "Angel of the Blues", "Barricades", "Shine On").

Can you talk about writing Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs?

Jay: Writing the book was like cognitive medicine. I had never written anything before except postcards and songs. It’s a retrospective view of real events that encompasses childhood years, getting started in music, and stories from the road, all in the form of short story vignettes.

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