After spearheading the alt country movement with Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar pursued his vision with Son Volt, who recorded three landmark albums in the ’90s before the groundbreaking artist put the band on extended hiatus and cut three solo LPs. Missing the free exchange of ideas and the surprises that inevitably occur when a group of simpatico musicians lock together, Farrar assembled a new lineup of Son Volt in 2004.
“Making solo recordings can be fulfilling, but you quickly become aware of self- capabilities and limitations,” says Farrar. “The band dynamic is such that everyone is bringing a diverse amount of experience into play and pushing everyone else—usually into the unknown, but that’s a good place to make music.”
American Central Dust, Son Volt’s third album in four years (Rounder, July 7), following ’05’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot and ’07’s The Search, marks the apotheosis of both the Son Volt dynamic and the rigorous aesthetic that distinguishes Farrar’s entire body of work, in which classic and contemporary elements are fashioned into arresting new shapes.
In the classic sense, the new album exhilaratingly carries on the tradition of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Little Feat circa Sailin’ Shoes, the Rolling Stones of Exile on Main Street and early R.E.M. “The approach was to get back to more fundamental themes, both lyrically and musically, to make a more focused record,” Farrar explains. “The Search was more about expanding the scope in terms of song structures and instrumentation. This time around, I was going for a kind of simplicity, even in the structure of the songs. I probably learned that from listening to Tom Waits, where simplicity can be a virtue.”
As for the contemporary side, “Just like with previous records, I have a daily habit of paying close attention to the news, and some of that does lead its way into the writing,” he acknowledges. Written during the summer of 2008, a period when it was becoming increasingly evident that the center would not hold, these 12 songs vividly capture the unease of a people in crisis, as the familiar was becoming surreal and long-held assumptions were in the process of unraveling. An epic lament for the heartland, American Central Dust is populated with readily recognizable characters, the most hopeful of them searching for love against a backdrop of rusted road signs and abandoned factories. In this world of “greys and blues,” as Farrar puts it, the intimacies of human relationships are knotted up in predicaments that arise out of struggling to get by while desperately grasping at whatever remnants of the American Dream are still within reach.
These songs are the modern-day aural equivalent of the photographs of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and William Eggleston: sharply observed yet compassionate images of the telling details of everyday life during hard times. Several of them play out as psychological travelogues, as Farrar captures moods in motion. “I suppose I gather ideas for my songs while on the road,” he says, “but there’s also always the consciousness there that the songs are gonna be played on the road, so it’s intertwined.”
Surrounding Farrar are drummer Dave Bryson (a regular since Farrar’s third solo LP, 2003’s live Stone, Steel & Bright Lights)and bassist Andrew Duplantis (who joined the group for Okemah and the Melody of Riot), and a pair of new additions in guitarist Chris Masterson, whom Farrar spotted a few years back playing with Jack Ingram, and Mark Spencer, formerly of the Blood Oranges, who switches off between keyboards, pedal steel and lap steel. All but Bryson contribute backing vocals. “This lineup was together about eight months when we recorded last October,” says Farrar, “so the record represents the coalescence of the group as it stands now.” Adding another dimension to the array is Eleanor Whitmore, who sits in on violin and viola.
Recording live off the floor to analog tape in Farrar’s St. Louis studio, filled with prized vintage gear, the players deftly brought these songs to life, as the bandleader concentrated on acoustic guitar, allowing the songs to develop as they were being recorded, bringing a hushed intimacy to certain songs, while in others Masterson and Spencer engage in bristling interaction more incendiary than one is used to encountering in folk-rock and country-rock settings like these.
When the recording was completed, Farrar gave the tracks to artist/producer Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Betty LaVette) and his engineer Ryan Freeland, who together handled the mix. “I liked his work on the Solomon Burke record Don’t Give Up on Me, especially the attention to detail—whether it was re-amped vocals or strategically placed effects,” says Farrar. The two met in the early ’90s when Uncle Tupelo toured with Henry’s band. The connection deepened when Eric Heywood and Jim Boquist, who’d played with Henry on that tour, became part of Son Volt’s initial lineup.
In less than three minutes, opening track “Dynamite” encapsulates the album’s themes, in which love sprouts through cracks in the asphalt, and its sounds, formal, taut and timeless. “Plastic grocery bags fly from the trees/Proud symbols of cavalier progress,” Farrar sings in the captivating lead single “Down to the Wire” over a martial beat and what sounds like dueling guitars, one tremolo, the other fuzzed-out to the max. The fuzztone part is actually Spencer’s Wurlitzer played through a guitar amp. On “Dust and Daylight,” a fiddle does a two-step with an eight-string Fender pedal steel, the same axe used by Sneaky Pete Kleinow on the Burritos’ records, and Spencer gives the part a similar keening soulfulness.
“Sultana” draws on agonies deep in the past, employing the language of traditional folk to tell the tragic tale of the worst American maritime disaster, which took place on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis in 1865. “The Titanic of the Mississippi was the Sultana,” Farrar sings, summing up his detailed account of the shipwreck. The great river also plays a connective role in “Pushed Too Far,” a tale of two cities, New Orleans (where he lived for a time in the ’90s) and his hometown of St. Louis, complete with references to N’awlins blues singer Snooks Eaglin and St. Louis legend Chuck Berry, who still plays locally.
In “When the Wheels Don’t Move,” a fuzztone guitar mimics grinding gears as Farrar gazes at the debris of a once-thriving industrial sector victimized by “hubris and greed” and asks, “Who makes the decision/To feed the tanks and not the mouths/When the wheels don’t move?” “That one was inspired by that period last year when gas prices skyrocketed,” Farrar explains. “I started thinking of it in terms of bands just starting out—how they could even afford to tour anymore. They’re maybe making $100 a gig, and it costs more than that to get from one town to the next.” In other songs, the titles themselves tell the tale: “No Turning Back,” “Pushed Too Far,” “Exiles,” “Strength and Doubt.”
When asked whether he intended any of these songs as sociopolitical commentary, Farrar responds: “Indirectly, but I think there’s also a little more positivity in this record than in previous ones. I was talking to a friend the other day about the last eight years, and the experience was like being a rider in the backseat of a car with a reckless driver—always on edge and occasionally shouting ‘No!’ But to a certain degree, some of these songs are more introspective.” The most introspective of all is “Cocaine and Ashes,” a high, lonesome ballad that sounds like it could’ve come off Side Two of Exile. The song starts with the lines, “I’ve had strychnine they thought I was dead/I snorted my father and I’m still alive.” Farrar acknowledges it was inspired by the news story in which Keith Richards claimed to have snorted up the ashes of his cremated father, before explaining that he’d been joking. “I was actually kind of moved by Keith’s idiosyncratic demonstration of his love for his deceased father,” says Farrar. “That’s Keith’s way of doing things; doing drugs is what he knows. Ultimately, it’s supposed to be an empathetic song, and I hope it comes across that way.”
Rarely does a musical work so powerfully capture the zeitgeist of its historical moment while also honoring the traditions of rock & roll with such rawboned grace. This is a record that cries out to be blasted from car stereos from coast to coast. It’ll do much more than a tank of gas to get the wheels moving again.