Fortunate Son

Because those who care about the long-departed Uncle Tupelo care deeply, fervently, even rabidly, there are bound to be conspiracy rumors among the faithful this summer. Both Tupelo founders, Jeff Tweedy with Wilco and Jay Farrar with the new Son Volt, are hitting the Wakarusa Festival within 36 hours of each other. (Anyone else heard reunion rumors?) A new Son Volt CD is due in July with a title, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, that references Woody Guthrie’s hometown, lyrics and ideas. The impending storm of quarrels is easy to imagine:

“Who does Farrar think he is, appropriating the Guthrie shtick? Tweedy and Wilco and Billy Bragg did it first with the Mermaid Avenue stuff. Woody’s theirs, damn it.”

“Oh, hell, Woody belongs to everybody. What I want to know is why Wilco gets a two-hour Friday-night slot and Son Volt bakes for 50 minutes on Thursday afternoon — before most of us are even off work.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, what about this new ‘Medication’ song on Okemah? Isn’t it pretty low for Farrar to sing about Tweedy’s prescription troubles?”

And on and on like that they’ll argue. The thing is, Farrar is so far past such dust-ups, they don’t even register. For one, he’s still weathering more recent wounds from the aborted reunion of the original Son Volt. (Just when Farrar was ready to rock out again last fall, the rest of the original band bailed, apparently for legal reasons.) Still, asked to compare the new incarnation of Son Volt with the guys who backed him for the recently released, much-beloved 1997 Austin City Limits concert DVD, Farrar downplays the differences.

“It’s still a four-piece, so the instrumentation is still the same this time around,” he says. “Different people, three different members,” he adds as an afterthought.

Farrar doesn’t exactly rave about how the new members add some new voltage — in fact, he doesn’t rave about much of anything in interviews — but it’s safe to assume that he’s proud of the new crew. “Dave Bryson, the drummer, is someone I played with on the Stone, Steel & Bright Lights record. He was in the band Canyon. Andrew Duplantis [who has played with Jon Dee Graham and Alejandro Escovedo] is playing bass, and he’s someone I met in the mid-’90s opening for Son Volt.”

In sharp contrast to Farrar’s near-somnolent speech (our phone call seems to have woken him from an alt-country beauty sleep) is the fact that the new Son Volt album, appropriately recorded in Farrar’s home base of St. Louis, contains some of the hardest-hitting stuff he’s done since Uncle Tupelo. “Yeah,” Farrar agrees, “I was looking to get back to playing the up-tempo, electrified stuff, having done primarily acoustic shows over the last couple of years. Maybe there is an element of spontaneity, playing with a group of different musicians. There may be an element of ‘Hey, this works.'”

Songs such as the pro-rock-and-roll anthem “6 String Belief,” the get-out-and-drive promotion “Afterglow Highway 61” and “Gramophone,” a breathless celebration of all things vinyl, point toward a burst of contentment, maybe even happiness. “There’s a couple of the [new] songs, like ‘Medication’ and ‘Endless War,’ that go back to the Terroir Blues solo-record period,” Farrar explains. “At that time, I had collected a group of more melancholic songs. After having done that, I was looking to do the opposite — finding a group of up-tempo, more melodic songs.”

Find those songs he did — and in a way befitting his flannel-shirted, Midwestern heritage. “I’ve always found it cathartic to get out and drive, and I suppose listening to old 78s and 45s does the same thing,” he says with a chuckle.

Woody Guthrie is the focal point for “Bandages and Scars,” one of several political songs on the CD, and the lyric, in spite of voicing concerns about environmental and political threats, turns out to be about healing — just like a Guthrie song. “I found that my children find a lot of enjoyment from Woody Guthrie’s music,” Farrar says. “They seem to really get something out of it. I guess a lot of issues that confront us these days aren’t really talked about in music. Definitely, you want there to be an environment for them [today’s kids] to live in.”

Though Farrar seems more concerned about ozone depletion and lead poisoning than about those in charge of the country, there’s definitely some guts behind the haunting “Jet Pilot,” in which a hard-partying new-world leader (who sure sounds like the current president) is recast as the kind of sad anti-hero Neil Young sings about: His daddy has a job in Washington/Wants to raise a Harvard son/Junior liked to let his hair down/Only trouble is, word gets around.

Then there’s that song called “Endless War.”

“A lot of the songs were written in the run-up to the presidential election period, when some of those issues were kicking around,” Farrar says. “They found their way into some of the music. At this point, I feel like I don’t want to be a political writer, so I’m ready to move on.”

Speaking of moving on, Uncle Tupelo fans tend to lose sight of the fact that Son Volt has been part of Farrar’s music for ages. Rhino recently released Son Volt: A Retrospective, 1995-2000, and compiling that anthology helped Farrar put his entire musical career in perspective. “After the Uncle Tupelo anthology came out, during that process, I noticed some other Son Volt B-sides and stuff I thought might want to see the light of day. It’s good to get some of the early stuff out there.”

Some of that early stuff will almost certainly make its way to the 3:10 Thursday Son Volt set — a concert time that, at first, doesn’t seem to bother Farrar much. “Bring a lot of towels and the drink of choice,” he says matter-of-factly. But there’s a moment when he wobbles just a little, murmuring, “Middle of the day, heat of the day.” His upper lip stiffens — you can hear it — and Farrar laughs. “Hopefully, we’ll make it.”

Categories: Music