Son Volt

In 2020, Son Volt planned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of seminal album, Trace, with a tour
that played the album from top to bottom. The pandemic had other plans. Flash forward to
2023 and they are on the road with a setlist that features Trace from beginning to end, an
homage to Doug Sahm (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados) and a celebration of 28 years of
Son Volt.

Son Volt’s latest record, Day of the Doug, revisits the music of legendary Texas troubadour
Doug Sahm. But it’s much more than fond remembrance and colorful tribute. It is a summoning
and a celebration of a songwriter and performer whose work forged country, Tex-Mex, rock,
rhythm and blues, folk, and psychedelia into an utterly unique American sound.

Day of the Doug steps confidently on the trails Sahm blazed. Like any journey to find a grail, Day
of the Doug also seeks out all the things that make young artists fall in love with making music
in the first place: adventure, youth novelty, and a chance to snatch a bit of immortality.

“It’s like reconnecting with a hero,” says Son Volt founder Jay Farrar. “And getting back to the
same kind of perspective I had when I was starting out as a younger musician. I think it’s just
important to step back from what you normally do. Take stock. Take inspiration. And see where
it leads from there.”

Anders Parker

The rare troubadour touches rock and roll with the depth and candor and scope of Anders Parker.

He entered the scene in the mid 90’s when a 4-track recording he made in his Portland, OR apartment, titled Man of Sin, got passed around.  Doing it himself and his way and with the energy that album had to offer, Parker formed a band and began walking a trail that has defined his life.  As the leader/songwriter/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist and under the moniker Varnaline, Parker toured, eventually released 5 albums under that name. Parker entered the indie lexicon.

As all things do, Varnaline ran its course, beginning phase two of Anders artistry, releasing albums under his own name. Tell It To The Dust and Anders Parker (s/t) set about to give air to Parkers unsettling need to explore genres, pushing forward his even more intensely weathered views on life and love.  Skyscraper Crow is a double album exploring electronic instruments on one album, acoustic instrument on the other — dualities and double meanings, abstraction and fixed stars. With Cross Latitudes, Parker released his first fully instrumental album of electric guitar pieces.  There’s A Bluebird In My Heart tracks back to formal songwriting veering from ballads to scorched earth rock.

Also in the mix and adding to his pedigree, a chance to put Woody Guthrie lyrics to music came around, resulting in New Multitudes.  Alongside Jim James, Jay Farrar and Will Johnson (all tour mates individually, and as a collective) Parker soared on songs such as “Angels Blues” and “Old L.A.” and “Fly High” to great acclaim.

Not to belabor the many faces of Parker, yet to be mentioned also is a record of duets with Kendall Meade under the name Anders & Kendall.  He was a member of the experimental rock band Space Needle.  And he made an album of traditional folk songs with Jay Farrar under the moniker Gob Iron.

2017:  Anders has once again decided it’s time to explore. To ruminate. To question things. The idea of a sparse record, one with string trio, pedal steel, acoustic guitar and voice, nothing else, was there to be mined. Titled The Man Who Fell From Earth, Parker quietly explodes with orchestration layered over his classically dark lyrics, hinting at new love and even more questions about the universe and our place in it all.  Truly a stunning album from start to finish, it is the beginning of yet another phase in this outrageously gifted songwriters life.

On Son Volt’s new record, Union, present and past mingle into strong confluence. The thirteen new songs written by founder Jay Farrar confront our turbulent politics and articulate the clarity and comfort music can offer in the tumult. “There are so many forces driving our country apart,” observes Farrar. “What can we do to bring our society back together?”
The country and blues sounds explored by Son Volt on its last two records (2013’s Honky Tonk and 2017’s Notes of Blue) linger in the grooves of Union. But the new record nods to many other mile markers along the band’s 25-year path. Some tunes offer a powerful return to the ringing lyrical clarity of 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot and 2007’s The Search. Others hearken back to the freewheeling poetic melodicism of 1994’s Trace and 1997’s Straightaways.
“Broadsides will be hurled to capture the truth,” sings Farrar on the brooding and blues-driven song that takes its name from the one-page bulletins that used to spread both proclamations and ballads. And songs such as “The 99,” “While Rome Burns,” and “Lady Liberty” push up the acoustic guitar in the mix to underscore the enduring role of troubadours in troubled times. “A lot of these songs are songs of turmoil,” says Farrar. “Questioning what’s going on.”
On Union, Farrar taps into folk music’s rich lyrical legacy. It’s a tradition he has tapped often both in Son Volt and in Uncle Tupelo. “I was raised on folk music,” observes Farrar. “Politics is a common thread there. In a time where we see threats to our way of life, and our democracy, from within, you say: What can I do? I put pen to paper and write music.”
The chorus of Union’s title song was a “mantra” of James Paul ‘Pops’ Farrar, about whom Farrar has written so affectingly in his memoir, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs. “He thought the Israeli model was best,” says the songwriter. “Everybody serves in one capacity or another, and that was the best way to bring a country together. It did happen here in World War II. People of different spiritual and economic backgrounds brought together. And there was an immense period of prosperity after that – for a myriad of reasons, but the idea that all walks of life were working together is important.”
Union grounds its politics in startling images and portraits of the human costs of our divides. Guitar and organ commingle on “While Rome Burns” to underscore a connectedness in the way that “the freeways lead to the gravel roads, to the town squares and the rodeos.”
The mournful shuffling “Reality Winner” echoes direct protest songs such as “Hurricane” – Bob Dylan’s ode to boxer Rubin Carter, who was wrongly convicted of triple homicide in 1967. Winner is a former intelligence analyst who leaked a National Security Agency document that detailed Russian attempts to hack voting systems to the media. She was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to five years and three months in prison.
“We have a reality TV show president,” Farrar says, “and we have this woman named Reality Winner, and they’re linked in a way. She represents everything that you want in an American, someone who’s learned three languages and does her part. She’s basically a whistleblower doing hard time. Maybe this song brings more awareness to her plight.”
A reinvigorated band chemistry anchors the new record, with new and returning members turning up in the Union mix. Longtime members Mark Spencer (piano, organ, acoustic slide, lap steel, backing vocals) and Andrew DuPlantis (bass, backing vocals) have been at the core of Son Volt’s recent work. Guitarist Chris Frame – who toured with Son Volt in the Okemah era – rejoined the group for the Notes of Blue tour and plays on the new record. DuPlantis recruited fellow Austin musician Mark Patterson to play drums and percussion.
“We spent a lot of time together playing shows behind Notes of Blue,” says Farrar. “That time playing together coalesced into a sense of purpose.” The Son Volt leader’s return to playing acoustic guitar – after taking up electric guitar on the band’s last record – also had an impact. “I took a step back,” says Farrar. The space allowed Frame “to add a lot of guitar elements.” The result is “a different flavor and perspective.”
Initially, Farrar intended Union to be an explicitly political statement. “Midway through,” he says, “I realized I needed some balance on the record.” The result is a cluster of new songs that reflect on the power of love, time, and music to heal and sustain us. “Holding Your Own” builds to a shimmering and powerful climax of piano and electric guitar as it relays the hopes Farrar identifies in “watching kids grow up and find their place in society.”
“Slow Burn” is an ode to hope and resilience’s power to shake off darkness. The song’s piano chords pave a road out of futility and reminds listeners that “every tunnel reaches the light.” Another highlight on the record is “Devil May Care” – an ebullient celebration of the joys of playing music. Farrar strip-mined musical gear catalogues for the poetry in their terminology, reeling off lines like “harmonic fidelity boost high pass filter on a balanced line / Or a cigarette on a headstock, all the same just make it rhyme.”
The attitude of bands such as the early-era Replacements was present as he wrote the song. “That is the essence of what a band is,” he says. “You remember: Wait a minute: Music is supposed to make you throw your burdens to the wind, so I tried to include that approach as well.”
Eight of the thirteen songs on Union were recorded at places associated with two figures in American history who Farrar says “made a difference”: Renowned American labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and quintessential American troubadour Woody Guthrie. Three songs were laid down at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, while four others were recorded at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“I felt doing it in a more challenging environment might inspire us along the way,” says Farrar. “Doing mobile recordings was a way to push myself a little bit. It also pushed Jacob Detering, our engineer, who had to assemble a mobile unit and did a great job.”
Proximity to Guthrie and his legacy pushed strongly into Union’s closing song: “The Symbol.” The song’s point of origin was Guthrie’s 1948 poem “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” which was later set to music by composer Martin Hoffman and is best-known as “Deportee.” Guthrie wrote at a moment when “workers needed to work fields weren’t even considered as people,” observes Farrar.
In “The Symbol,” Farrar paints a compelling portrait of a Mexican man who helped rebuild New Orleans after Katrina and now finds himself buffeted by the wave of anti-immigration rhetoric and vengeful law enforcement.
Farrar says that the key to writing songs on topical issues that stand the test of time is to be a truthful observer.
“‘Deportee’ made such a lasting impression on me,” he observes. “But it was written in the 1940s You have to give your own take. Say this is what happened. Even if it seems temporary. Hopefully it’s not.”

Seminal band Son Volt has announced the February 17, 2017 release of their new album, Notes Of Blue (Thirty Tigers). Led by the songwriting and vocals of Jay Farrar, Son Volt was one of the most instrumental and influential bands in launching the alt.country movement of the 1990’s. A movement that was the precursor to what is now widely referred to as Americana.

 

The 10 songs on Notes Of Blue are inspired by the spirit of the blues, but not the standard blues as most know it. The unique and haunting tunings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James and Nick Drake were all points of exploration for Farrar for the new collection. The album opens with the country soul of “Promise The World”, followed by “Back Against The Wall”, a song that could stand alongside the great Son Volt songs of their early albums. However, Notes Of Blue reflects the blues as it resides in the folk tradition, but heavily amplified. The primal stomp of “Cherokee Girl”, the frenetic guitar on “Static” and the raw slide in “Sinking Down” exude grit and attitude. Conversely, tracks such as “The Storm” and “Cairo and Southern” seamlessly meld blues with hypnotic melodies that add a unique balance to Notes Of Blue.

 

Farrar possesses one of the most distinctive voices in roots, rock, country or any genre. He exudes a soulful longing combined with a wise-beyond-his-years command that is as arresting and compelling as ever. As a songwriter, Farrar’s depth and poetic penchant has been the foundation of a thoughtful, deep and intelligent body of work. Both attributes are on full display on Notes Of Blue, as he touches on themes of redemption and the common struggle, both of which are at the core of the blues.

 

Whether you call it alt.country, Americana, roots rock, insurgent country or just good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, musical trends appear and disappear on regular basis.

Notes of Blue is a testament to the legacy of inspiration and creative spirit that Jay Farrar and Son Volt continue to uphold.