Jay Farrar has found himself looking backward. Or perhaps “listening” backward is a better way to put it.
Farrar, the driving force behind the alt-county/traditional American music band Son Volt, had been listening to a lot of country music from the late 1950s and early ’60s that emanated from Bakersfield, Calif. The so-called Bakersfield Sound, typified by artists such as Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart and Merle Haggard, differed from Nashville country of the time. The Bakersfield artists relied on pedal steel guitar and fiddle and borrowed from rock ’n roll, while their Nashville counterparts were into big orchestration, slick production and lots of strings.
So Farrar and Son Volt have gone to Bakersfield, so to speak, for their latest record “Honky Tonk.”
“Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, it’s discernible that they approached their craft with more of a rock and roll sensibility, and that’s something that resonated with me for sure, coming from more of a rock background first, then getting into country later,” Farrar said by phone earlier this week.
Farrar’s rock background stems from his early days in the garage band The Plebes, which formed in the 1980s in Belleville, Ill. Farrar’s high school friend Jeff Tweedy joined the band, which later changed its name to The Primitives, playing blues-oriented garage rock. Eventually, the Primitives became Uncle Tupelo, the landmark alt-country band. Uncle Tupelo split up in 1994 after four albums and before they’d found much commercial success, with Farrar forming Son Volt and Tweedy going on to form Wilco.
Son Volt has released eight albums since 1995, three with the original lineup before Farrar announced a hiatus in 1999. He re-formed the band in 2005 and has since released four albums. “A Retrospective: 1995-2000” bridges the two eras.
In a review of “Honky Tonk” on Allmusic.com, critic Steve Leggett writes that the album is full “of slow and midtempo waltzes and shuffles, and framed and led by pedal steel guitars and twin fiddles, along with Farrar’s weary, never-in-a-big-hurry, laid-back (but somehow mysteriously intense) vocals, ‘ Honky Tonk’ is full of a beautiful, thoughtful, and almost Zen-like approach to life, all set against a classic old-school Bakersfield country backdrop.”
Focusing on the Bakersfield sound helped Farrar write the songs for “Honky Tonk” in one burst of creativity over a two-week period.
“I embraced the lexicon of the music I was listening to and got into the heartbreak and heartache culture that they used to describe the culture of the time,” he said. “It’s a culture of commiseration. Even my two children, whenever they hear it, they’re like ‘Why are these people so sad? What’s wrong?’ ”
Leggett also suggests all Son Volt records have lead to “Honky Tonk.” Fararr said there’s validity to that idea.
“Throughout Son Volt’s catalog has been this sort of duality, where there’s the electric side and then there’s the acoustic side,” he said. “The last two Son Volt records have focused more on the acoustic side. With ‘Honky Tonk,’ we were focusing more on country-oriented stuff. I do look at it as a continuum, sort of getting back to the aesthetic found on the first song on the first Son Volt record.”
That first song on the first Son Volt record, “Windfall” from 1995’s “Trace,” is a lovely country song, with classic harmonies, fiddle and pedal steel. It sounds right at home with the tunes of “Honky Tonk.”