After a seven-year hiatus, during which he did anything but take time off, Jay Farrar has reformed Son Volt, the band he started in 1994 when his seminal alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo, disbanded.This year is huge for Son Volt: An anthology of the band's first three albums hit the shelves in May; a DVD of the group shot live in 1996 from Austin City Limits is out; and the release of a brand-new album - Okemah and the Melody of Riot - is being followed by a fall tour. We met up with Farrar at his St. Louis studio to talk music, the band, the road, and cheese sandwiches in Woody Guthrie's hometown. - James Mayfield
It's been seven years since the last Son Volt album, Wide Swing Tremolo. Why the break between albums, and why get the band back together now? There were kind of dual reasons for taking the hiatus. I had children during that period, and I wanted to spend more time with them. But also, I was looking for a different challenge, and that meant doing solo recordings and also performing solo acoustic. That was something I felt I had to experience. I pretty much started out just playing in a band context. I feel I've learned a lot just by getting up on stage with an acoustic guitar - it's informative; nothing to hide behind. [Laughs]
Listening to the new album, you kind of go through music historically, talking about Highway 61, gramophones, and your "6 String Belief." I guess the point of origination for "6 String Belief" was the age-old argument: Is rock and roll dead? At that time, I was just thinking about how there's been kind of a movement back toward a more fundamental rock-and-roll attitude and sound - bands like the White Stripes. "Gramophone," even though I don't technically own a gramophone, I do have an old 78 player, which I use a lot listening to old 78s. And there's just an elusive quality that isn't there with the digital stuff. With "Afterglow 61," I spent a lot of time during the recording of the first Son Volt record, when I was living in New Orleans and driving up to Minneapolis to rehearse. It was almost a 24-hour drive, and occasionally I would get off on Highway 61 and drive through Mississippi and Louisiana. There's a lot of character to driving the old road.
What about the words of Woody Guthrie ringing in your head? Those are lyrics from the song "Bandages and Scars." Basically, it was just looking to Woody as a point of reference and a source of inspiration. He's someone I first came across through my parents, you know - they would sing and perform his songs, and they also had his records in their collection. I found that my own children kind of respond to Woody's music enthusiastically.
What does Okemah and the Melody of Riot mean? Okemah is the hometown of Woody Guthrie in Oklahoma. So there's a reference in the first song. It's also a place that, years ago, I made a pilgrimage [to] with, uh, two of the guys from the Bottle Rockets. So, I do have a little firsthand experience with Okemah. Enough to know that the local pronunciation is O-kee-muh. It's a small town, but it has its own distinct character. We saw [Guthrie's] boyhood home. It was all torn down, but you could still see the foundation. And on the water tower they have "Home of Woody Guthrie." I do remember having one of the most interesting interpretations of the grilled-cheese sandwich [that] I've ever seen. It was one-half of an English muffin, with a piece of cheese out of one of the plastic wrappers melted on top. [Laughs]