In Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs—a collection of short memoirs—alt-country band Son Volt front man Jay Farrar paints a truly heartfelt picture of his classic American upbringing and his wonderful parents. He shares some of the earliest memories that influenced him to become a musician.
"I was [in St. Louis] until 1970," writes Farrar. "... [T]he music that filtered down from my three older brothers was real good—James Brown, Joe Tex and The Jackson 5."
It was Farrar's father, James, who encouraged him to learn the guitar as a toddler and his mother who gave him the lessons.
"While other kids out there were learning from Mel Bay books," he writes, "I was being taught from the Laura Weber folk song book."
Flash forward: In 1987, at age 21, Farrar formed the band Uncle Tupelo with seemingly like-minded songwriter Jeff Tweedy (currently of the band Wilco). Though no longer together, Uncle Tupelo has been heralded for birthing the alternative country genre and is considered one of the most influential bands in modern country music. The band's quickstep country rock with punk influences is still recognized as special—a sentiment acknowledged in the rerelease of all four Uncle Tupelo albums on vinyl for the National Record Store Day event in 2012.
Though Tweedy and Wilco continued the experimental journey beyond alt-country, Farrar has never strayed very far from it, spending the last 19 years perfecting a sound with his band Son Volt.
Last Monday afternoon, I called Farrar at his recording studio. Soft-spoken and subdued, Farrar sounds like a person who was thinking long and hard about something important before my call. He easily begins talking about his days in Uncle Tupelo.
"Uncle Tupelo served as a valuable learning experience, for sure," said Farrar. "It's where I learned the craft of songwriting."
Ultimately, though, that experience did not allow for the kind of growth Farrar craved.
"With two songwriters [Uncle Tupelo] became a crowded nest; it became dysfunctional," recounted Farrar. "The other songwriter came up to me and said, People like my songs more than yours, He came up to me and said that and then just walked away."
After the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar was free to pursue his musical vision.
"[Son Volt] came to encapsulate a more focused sound, and that meant exploring the fiddle and pedal steel guitar," said Farrar. "There's always been a sort of duality, both in Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. There was a desire to energize but also explore acoustic song -writing."
Though 2013 is only half over, it's been an important year for Farrar. Now 46, Farrar seemingly has halted his long pursuit of creating sounds new to country music. Instead he seems eager to fully embrace the sounds of the past. He seems to be at that perfect reflective age.
In March, both his book of short biographies and Honky Tonk—perhaps Son Volt's best album—were released. On Honky Tonk, Farrar revels in the traditional music of legends like Wynn Stewart and Merle Haggard. Farrar croons as if singing from a rickety Kentucky porch near sunset. Slide guitar and fiddle make the songs feel like home. The music is fitting when considered against that collection of memoirs.
Farrar spends a lot of time in the book utilizing tight and neat stories to talk about his childhood. He communicates the full breadth of the American dream, hard work and family ties through stories about how his parents met and sledding on frozen mud when there was no snow. As he speaks on the phone about it, Farrar's impassioned voice betrays the deep emotions he has for his book.
"Writing the book was something I fell into," said Farrar. "I found that it was the practice activity of cognitive medicine. Writing this book was just a good way to take stock; making sense of things that have happened to you. I think it's fairly evident from the stories that my father was very influential. He passed away at 72."
Together, the book and the new album feel like a representation of that day when a grown child—after sufficiently exploring the world—looks in the mirror and rather than seeing some new version of himself, instead sees his old man staring back.
8 p.m. Saturday, July 27
The Tower Theatre
835 N.W. Wall St.
Tickets $26 - $37.50 at www.towertheatre.org