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New Jay Farrar book and new Son Volt album are reviewed at RDR

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
Son Volt's Jay Farrar has been a busy and creative guy in recent years.
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Son Volt- Honky Tonk (Rounder) 2013

Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs: Portraits of a Musical Life by Jay Farrar (Soft Skull Press) 2013

Ever since seeing Jay Farrar's band Son Volt in 1997 in Arkansas on their Straightaways tour with a hitchhiker I picked up named Jay (or was it Joe?), I have been bewitched by Farrar's musical approach and vision. Not to say it was complicated or groundbreaking. No, it was something far more earthy and real. Very now but very much of the past.

I should back up and say that I had been a solid fan of the Americana and alt-country of Farrar's first band - Uncle Tupelo - and albums like March 16-20, 1992 and Anodyne. That was, until the trio (with drummer Mike Heidorn) broke up.

Why did they break up? Well, in the collection of personal essays and "autobiographical vignettes," Farrar-heads get a deeper peek into the sometimes standoffish and vaguely mysterious singer-songwriter from St. Louis.

With roots in both the South and the North, the Civil War was never quite over in the Farrar household. With his mother winning the battle on what to name her newborn son. Pops Farrar wanted a name linked to any number of Confederate generals - Jeb. Jubal. Forrest. Ma Farrar won that battle with "Jay."

There are 10 chapters to Falling Cars …, broke up in multiple sub-chapters. Starting off with his earliest years in Missouri and then in Illinois, Farrar's upbringing was solidly middle class, with rural Ozark influences never far away.

It's an easy read, just under 150 pages. I read it in an afternoon and actually put it down wanting to learn more about Jay Farrar and his thoughts on life and music. Cool to see that the subversive book publisher Soft Skull Press (I literally just watched the vaguely depressing 2002 documentary Horns and Halos about Soft Skull's Sander Hicks and his alternative book publisher's dealings with troubled biographer J.H. Hatfield, who wrote the George W. Bush expose Fortunate Son. Seems like an appropriate publisher for a guy like Farrar, in light of his political leanings, highlighted in some mid-2000's recordings).

Anyway, in the book's sub-chapter "Falling Cars," Farrar talks about spending time with his adventure-loving father (he embarked on a secret military mission to Antarctica once), who liked to salvage old cars. However, when he was young Farrar would be left in the car because his dad said the salvage yard was dangerous, due to "Falling cars and junkyard dogs."

He then transitions from hanging out with Pops at the salvage yard in Granite City, Illinois into the breakup of the critically-appreciated Uncle Tupelo, although he never notes the name. Jeff Tweedy, who later form the more commercially successful Wilco, is dismissively referred to as "the bass player." Tweedy comes off looking pretty bad in this section.

Farrar concludes, in this section, writing: "Many years later, I revisited the Granite City Salvage yard. The experience was imbued with an overall sense of decaying nostalgia. So it goes for worn out cars and old bands."

Perhaps that makes Farrar sound, well, murky? No, not at all. Like the Mississippi River that flows between his shared home states of Missouri and Illinois, Farrar is a man who sees both sides. The good and the bad. The ups and downs. That comes through in his music, from his post-Uncle Tupelo debut Trace to the just-released Honky Tonk.

Band members and sidemen have come and gone over the past two decades since Son Volt began, but Farrar (even with his solid solo releases like Sebastopol) has stayed pretty committed to the sound and approach he wants to give his loyal listeners.

Except … with Honky Tonk, Farrar is steeped in classic country music. Farrar is utterly unapologetic about this approach. As he has cranked things up on albums like his Woody-friendly Okemah and the Melody of Riot and The Search, with a roots-rock sound, and on powerful songs like "Sultana" (on 2009's American Central Dust, and a song Farrar recorded on a piano he got from a strange man named "Captain Jack," according to a section in the book)

"Hearts and Minds" kicks off Honky Tonk in a fairly conventional fashion, with a dancehall waltz feel and plenty of Justin Branum's fiddle.

Side two meanders forward with the vaguely melancholy"Brick Walls," and the country ballad "Wild Side." Things remain at this pace with "Down the Highway"

Farrar's bandmates, this time around, include bassist/pedal steel/keyboardist Mark Spencer, stringed-instrument players Gary Hunt and the aforementioned Justin Branum, Brad Sarno on pedal steel and Dave Bryson, again, on drums. Farrar sticks with acoustic guitar and harmonica on this outing. And as Farrar told Red Dirt Report back in 2009, fiddle and pedal steel were getting more love on Son Volt recordings. You get that in spades on Honky Tonk.

And in the book, the musicians Farrar admires and meets are peppered throughout, from Keith Richards (friendly) to Chuck Berry (emotionless) and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds ("don't bother with the country stuff" - ha!) to June Carter, who invites the band to Johnny Cash's 65th birthday - although they can't make it due to tour commitments. Alex Chilton (The Box Tops, Big Star) even drops by to borrow Farrar's feather duster. Every "celebrity" encounter Farrar shares is interesting.

And there's sections on touring, family life, his love of travel and beat poetry and more, including photos of Americana that one would expect from an artist like Farrar, who has a heart for the "little guy," lost somewhere in Middle America.

Back on Honky Tonk, side two, with 5 songs, compared to side one's 6 songs, is more musically interesting to my ears, with "Angel of the Blues" and "Seawall," reminiscent of early Son Volt, capturing my attention. And with a track like "Barricades" there is a little more musical "meat" to be appreciated.

I should clarify that Honky Tonk lives up to its name. It's very country oriented and folks looking for a more rock-oriented Son Volt may be disappointed with this recording.

Of course we here at Red Dirt Report always loved the country side of Jay Farrar. So we are quite pleased with Honky Tonk. It sounds great on the office turntable.

Son Volt will be playing at VZD's (4200 N. Western) on Friday June 28th (it had been scheduled for the Diamond Ballroom but there was a last-minute change of venue) along with opening act Colonel Ford. Tickets are $16 in advance and $19 the day of the show. Doors open at 7 p.m.

Copyright 2013 Red Dirt Report

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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