By Mike Killeen
Jay Farrar’s music has held court in my soul since I was 16 years old, a junior in high school—still processing the death of Kurt Cobain, wondering if respecting my parents was uncool, growing my hair out a bit, maybe finally getting some attention from girls, worried about my skin. Teenage stuff. I had been too young, or too immature to “get” Farrar’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo. So, Son Volt’s first album, “Trace,” was my true introduction to Farrar’s music, his lyrics. His voice.
My dad loved Uncle Tupelo, but like the early Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle albums he played me, it sounded “too country.” My folks introduced me to everything you would play a kid to “teach” him good music. But I had insecurities and peer pressures and parties where everything was either AC/DC, Bobby Brown, or Garth Brooks. There were not many shades of gray. And anything country-ish wasn’t cool.
Then I heard “Drown.” Then “Windfall” (!). Then “Tear Stained Eye,” and “Ten Second News,” and “Loose String.” If they paid by the stream back then, Mr. Farrar would be driving a guitar-shaped Cadillac, thanks to me alone. Instead, I paid $9.99 for what must have been a million spins.
In my 1995 Ford Ranger, on the way to Cedar Shoals High School, I can tell you which lyric from “Trace” plays at every fire hydrant, every gas station, every four-way stop. I am unquestionably passing the old Piggly Wiggly as “Route” is firing up, with those loud, warm, beautiful, guitars that knock you over. It’s a perfect riff without sounding “riffy,” like so much other rock music that was around.
The first time I saw Son Volt live was in 1996 at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA, my hometown. My dad took me. Just me and him. He told the door man he’d make sure I didn’t drink. I didn’t. And I’ve never been so drunk in my life. I’d do anything to see that show again. I’d never heard a band like that. Maybe not since. Electric, acoustic. Loud, quiet. Rebellious, contemplative. Right in your face while looking away.
The first decent song I ever wrote, penned in my dorm room at UGA a couple years later, included the lyric, “Give me Jay Farrar and a full tank of gas, and I’ll drive all night.” It’s how I felt. Still do.
The rest of my story with Jay Farrar’s music is predictable. I first went back through the Uncle Tupelo catalogue. I developed immediate favorites (“Still Be Gone,” “Chickamauga”) and then others that I came to appreciate even more (“Wipe The Clock,” “Steal The Crumbs”). I love them all.
By the time the second Son Volt record, “Straightaways,” came out, I was ready. I waited in line at Wuxtry Records for the midnight release. That record includes my all-time favorite Jay Farrar song, “Left A Slide.” That song’s inspired a lot of chills, tears, and –with apologies—rants about its perfection to anyone I could trap in my pick-up truck late at night.
I’ve seen Son Volt, I think, every time they’ve come to Athens or Atlanta since 1996. Jay’s solo shows too. I’ve seen them in at least six cities. And I’ve bought every record the day it came out.
So, when me and some friends decided to start a non-profit that would throw concerts and festivals to raise money for the homeless and impoverished, I developed a not-so-secret mission to get Jay Farrar to play one of our shows. And in 2015, it happened. We weren’t ready for Son Volt, but we found a way to book Jay Farrar on a solo tour, into Eddie’s Attic (a small club in Decatur), accompanied by Gary Hunt on guitar. I’m a hobbyist musician and, in a theme that will become familiar, my friends encouraged me to open the show. So I did. I’ll never forget it. My biggest thrill wasn’t my performance, or hearing his, but introducing my father to Jay Farrar. Jay was very kind, even conversational, and went as far as to call my dad by his old college nickname, “Fox.” I’ll never forget it. Never.
Five years later, our little organization grew up enough to book Son Volt for the April 2020 festival. Well, COVID took care of that. I was devastated. We sat out all of 2020 and the first half of 2021. When our October 2021 festival came around, Son Volt wasn’t available. So, we set our sights on April 2022 and, lo and behold, it came together.
As an organizer of the Amplify Decatur Music Festival, I have to be fair to others and sensitive to appearances. God, I would have loved to open for Lucinda Williams in 2017, or the Jayhawks in 2018, or Mavis Staples in 2019, or the Indigo Girls in 2021. But I wanted to hold out for Son Volt. So, when we booked them for this year, I put up very little fight when my friends and colleagues insisted we put my band on the bill. I have no regrets, and I’ve never been so excited for a show.
Oh, if that wasn’t enough, I did one more thing. I asked Son Volt’ management if I could interview Jay for just 15 quick minutes. They agreed, and so I did. Here’s how that went:
How are you?!
I’m good, I believe we worked together five years ago or so?
Wow, great memory. Yes, you played a solo show with Gary Hunt at a place called Eddie’s Attic here in Decatur, in 2015.
Yes, I remember!
Well, I’m not sure how much you know about our organization…
Oh, yes, I remember well and I read the links that you shared.
Call drops and we rejoin.
Sorry about that. But we were talking about Amplify and your performance in 2015.
Well, that’s great. You were really nice to my dad and even called him by his old college nickname, “Fox.”
Oh! Yes! I remember that.
Well, we had the band all lined up for 2020 and then COVID got in the way, so we’re so excited to have you on board for this festival. Which brings me to my first question, I guess I’ll jump right in..
Call drops again.
Ok, let’s try again!
Sorry for the trouble.
No, it’s on my end I think.
Ok, well…You’ve been touring your entire adult life. And I’ve read you say that when you don’t tour you don’t feel like yourself. I’m interested in whether the cancelations, starts and stops, etc., have brought about any reflection. Something that’s always been there has recently been taken away. Something that was always in your control suddenly wasn’t. Does it feel different. Do you appreciate it more? Anything like that?
You know, you’ve hit upon something. There is something cathartic about being able to go out and perform. I think singing is especially good for you, for anyone, and I missed that. But, also, with the pandemic and the shut down and all that, there was a silver lining—spending more time with my family and just kind of recalibrating from a musical perspective, really drilling down on some songwriting without any distractions.
Call drops again.
Jay, I’m so embarrassed. Let’s try again.
No, it’s ok, I’m walking around the house looking for a good spot.
Ok, well, I saw Dylan a couple times recently, the show in New Orleans was on the 60th anniversary of his first album release…
Wow. Last time I saw him was mid 90s when he was playing with GE Smith, actually also saw him six years ago. Both were great. There was quite a contrast in the two shows I saw. Was he playing piano when you saw him?
Yes, the entire time.
Yeah, one show I saw he was all guitar, and the other was all piano. He was kind of prancing around. I got to see both sides, er, another side of Bob Dylan (laughs).
Yeah, I was with a mixed crowd of Dylan fans, and it so there was a variety of reactions among some who are super fans and some who maybe have heard Times They Are Changin’…
But I was floored I thought it was great.
One thing I was struck by is that he’s still doing it, and doing it well.
You are still in your prime of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he’s going to tour until he is literally unable to. I wondered if you ever think that far ahead. I mean are you going to do this when you’re 80. Do you ever think that far ahead?
(Call drops for fourth time, Jay calls me back yet again)
Well I’ve waited my whole life for Jay Farrar to call me four times in a morning.
It’s funny when we were talking Dylan, it was clear as a bell. Must be a sign from God.
Right, but we starting talking Son Volt and all hell breaks loose.
Must be a “Clear Day Thunder.”
Oh, keep ‘em coming…
Ok, well I don’t think I play until I drop like Willie Nelson and Dylan – it’s great –but there’s a lot of variables. But as long as I continue to enjoy it, I’ll do it.
I don’t know anything about you except what I read and some of your songs and what I’ve heard you say, and your comments earlier, but I understand that your family is very important to you. I’m sure that’s the hardest thing and the worst part about being in a band. But what’s another thing that sucks about the profession you have? I mean everyone wants to do it, but then you gotta do it. What’s that like?
Yeah. It’s basically life intensified. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. I think Charlie Watts pretty much nailed it, and I’ll try to paraphrase: “10 percent is playing music, and 90 percent is waiting to play music.” And so trying to keep your mind occupied while you’re waiting.
Has the podcast revolution been helpful at all. I know you’re a deep reader on the tour bus.
Not really, I mostly read the news. That’s what I’m conditioned to do.
Just to put your mind at ease, you read the international affairs?
Yeah, exactly, really helps me sleep at night. No, it doesn’t. But I guess I I’ve always been kind of a news junkie.
You’ve spoken about being intentional about evolving creatively. Pick up an alternate tuning, revisit inspiring authors. Perhaps I should know this, but have you written another album on the road, so to speak, like you did with “Trace?”
Uh, let’s see, I think the writing for Trace just evolved in a much different way because it involved me literally driving alone from North to South, from New Orleans and Minneapolis and St. Louise and in between. And I was decompressing a bit having just come off of Uncle Tupelo. That writing from Trace represents something a little different, but Straightaways was also done on the road but it was done touring, so that’s a more chaotic version of being on the road.
Mentioning Straightaways is a perfect segue to my next question. I love Trace, everyone does, but it’s not my favorite Son Volt album, I have a couple others I prefer. But it seems to be the one you’re most associated with, the one that by some measurements is the most successful. And I can’t figure out why not “Straightaways,” for example. Do you have any thoughts about why Trace took off the way it did?
A lot of it has to do with the way it was promoted. There was certainly more radio airplay. But the first model or the first hearing of a new band is the one that resonates the most perhaps.
When’s the last time you played “Left A Slide” live?
Maybe a couple times in the duo setting in the early 2000s, but good call, it’s been a long time. So Straightaways is one you like?
Oh I love Straightaways. I really do, I really do. Perhaps my favorite among favorites.
That’s good to hear.
I believe you’ve said you like to “pivot” from one album to the next in terms of style.
These aren’t your words, but “Union” was political, “Honky Tonk” was Bakersfield or somewhat self-explanatory, “Notes of Blue” was blues-inspired, from the tunings to subject matter.
Your newest album, which I’m worried I’ll mispronounce (“Electro Melodier”) is fantastic. I’m wondering how you would categorize it, so to speak, or at least describe the pivot you intended to make.
I guess I see it two ways: It’s a companion to “Union,” in that they were both focused on melodic song structures; but perhaps lyrically, there was more topical songwriting in “Union”—now maybe I’m trying to stay positive. (Laughs).
Well I think I should let you go. Thank you so much, good to speak with you.
Oh, likewise, man. Good to talk to you. And glad to be a part of the event, thanks for doing it.
Well, have a good rest of your day.
Thanks, man. Take care.
Son Volt performs at the Amplify Decatur Music Festival Saturday April 23 at 6:15 p.m.
Mike Killeen Band performs at 3 p.m.