Jay Farrar Pulled Out the Electric Guitar from Debut Trace to Take Son Volt in a Bluesier Direction

Jay Farrar (center) formed Son Volt in '94, after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo.
Jay Farrar (center) formed Son Volt in '94, after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo. courtesy the artist
Son Volt play the Kessler on Friday, March 3.
Two weeks ago, St. Louis-based alt-country act Son Volt released their 7th studio effort. Notes of Blue expands on the blues influences in the band’s discography, which have until now been subtle.

“I started to play with alternative tunings. It really changed the way I had to write my songs,” says Jay Farrar, the chief songwriter and frontman of the group. “One of the harder things for me was trying fingerpicking, ’cause it was something I never really used before.”

While the blues and country typically go hand in hand, Farrar found his songwriting was altered on a fundamental level when he mingled the two. “Early country music definitely was influenced by the blues. Pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams utilized a lot of blues chords, while laying the groundwork for what would become modern country music,” he says.

One of the core elements in Son Volt’s latest album is the electric guitar. While this is standard for most contemporary musicians, it felt foreign to Farrar, who has spent most of his career on an acoustic guitar.
“The guitar that I pulled out for the electric guitar parts is actually the one you see on the cover of the album,” he says. “In fact, it’s the same one I used when we recorded parts of Trace.”

In this way, Notes of Blue seeks to honor its predecessors. Not simply in its ties to Son Volt’s ’95 debut, but also with the way it hearkens back to a simpler time in music’s history.

“The songs on the record are very much written and viewed through a retrospective lens,” Farrar says. “I don’t really listen to a lot of contemporary country music, so the only thing really informing my songs is what already was. I really sought to pay my respects.”

One of the most interesting choices on the album is the inclusion of a bottleneck slide in the guitar compositions.

“It took me awhile to figure it out. I had played slide guitar before but never with a bottleneck. I couldn’t find one that was comfortable for me,” he says. “I finally settled on a slide handcrafted out of a wine bottle by a friend of mine. It’s tapered towards the top and helped produce the tones I was hearing in my head.”

Having spent over two decades as a band, Farrar felt it was time for Son Volt to branch out.

“I didn’t necessarily want it to come off as completely foreign, but when you introduce things like alternate tunings, fingerpicking, etc. it starts to become it’s own entity,” he says. “I’d like to think there is still plenty of familiarity for long-time fans though.”

In some cases, Farrar felt he took his experimentation too far. Two songs he wrote were too far afield of Notes of Blues’ aesthetic and they didn’t make the album.

“One is ‘Ballymena,’ a song I wrote about a rebellion in Ireland that affects an Irish folk tone that felt really out of place, and the other is a cover of ‘Yellow Walls’ by Jackson C. Frank,” Farrar says. “They serve as sort of an addendum to the rest of the album. It’s a testament to just how much I pushed my boundaries this time around.”

Even 22 years after their acclaimed debut, Son Volt are still attempting to keep things fresh for new and old fans alike.

Son Volt, with Johnny Irion, 7 p.m. Friday, March 3, the Kessler, 1230 W. Davis St., sold out,
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Taylor Frantum is a music journalist based out of Dallas/Denton,Texas. He has written for various online and print publications, including the Dallas Observer, the Dentonite, ThisNewBand and Monkeys Fighting Robots. He thinks Celebration Rock is one of the greatest albums of the last 20 years, and is more than happy to trade playlists with you, unless you have Tidal.