When Jay Farrar first set sail with his post-Uncle Tupelo vessel, Son Volt, back in 1995 with Trace, he was at the crest of an Americana wave that has risen and fallen a couple of times since then. In the meantime, he has become something of a parental figure in the alt-country family tree. A decade-and-a-half down the road, Farrar is the only original member remaining for the sixth Son Volt full-length, American Central Dust, but he’s still following through on his vision. The singer-songwriter and his bandmates are pursuing a more stripped-down, back-to-basics sound, and Farrar’s writing continues to push at the boundaries of narrative and poetry, sometimes obliterating those borders altogether. Here, Farrar talks about the turns Son Volt’s journey is taking.
What’s the significance of the title American Central Dust to you?
Geographic location does seem to inform the way music gets expressed — to a degree. How about [Tex-Mex moodmeisters] Calexico? Keith Richards once said that songwriting is about pulling songs out of the air. If dust is where songs come from, then dust is probably where they will end up soon enough.
How did a notorious Keith Richards anecdote inspire you to write “Cocaine and Ashes”?
Keith’s comment about mixing his father’s ashes with cocaine and snorting it struck me as a real and honest statement. Thanks to Keith for not being afraid to say what really happens in life.
Why did you decide to take a more acoustic, less “produced” approach for this album than that of The Search?
The Idea with American Central Dust was to go for a more focused aesthetic. With the previous Son Volt record, The Search, it was more about taking on different possibilities. On this recording I wanted to get away from the push-pull effect of jumping from electric to acoustic guitar, so I just played all of the songs on acoustic guitar and piano and used more familiar instrumentation — pedal steel, violin, etc.
How has the new lineup of the band influenced the direction of the sound?
The chemistry of the current lineup is reflected on this recording — [there’s] more of a soloist sensibility on keyboards and pedal steel — courtesy of [new member, ex-Blood Oranges] Mark Spencer.
With you being the only original member remaining, how do you define the difference between a Son Volt album and a Jay Farrar album?
Son Volt is a vehicle with interlocking yet interchangeable parts. There is always a sense of camaraderie and a collective sense of purpose in a band setting. I haven’t come up with a rulebook that defines the difference between a Son Volt record and a solo record. It’s basically just a matter of following wherever instincts and inspiration go.
What made you decide to write a song about the 1865 Sultana riverboat tragedy with “Sultana”?
It struck me as odd that the Sultana incident [the ship’s sinking took 1,800 lives] was not more on the radar screen of history. It seems that the reason it is not is that the disaster happened a month after Lincoln was assassinated, and people were tired of bad news at that time. Still, that doesn’t explain why history books let the story fade away years after it happened.
“Sultana” notwithstanding, it seems your songwriting has become more impressionistic and less literal over time.
Non-linear, impressionistic writing is the best way to go — for any writer — because it’s always going to be more individualistic that way.