July 29, 2005


Melody Riot: As Son Volt returns with its first album in seven years, its frontman discusses his ambivalence about being known as an 'alt-country' pioneer and his split with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. (Jac Chebatoris, 7/29/05, Newsweek)

At age 38, Jay Farrar may seem too young to be a grandfather, but musically speaking that’s just what he is. Farrar, along with former Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy, is credited with starting the alt-country movement in the early 1990s. The two high-school friends expanded on the roots and folk music they had listened to growing up in Illinois, by adding the melodic elements of country with the intensity of punk.

Uncle Tupelo split up in 1994 after Farrar and Tweedy had a well-publicized falling out. Tweedy went on to form the critically ballyhooed Wilco with other Uncle Tupelo members. Farrar fronted Son Volt for three albums until his solo ambitions put the band on hiatus. After seven years, during which Farrar recorded three of his own albums, Son Volt is back with “Okemah and the Melody of Riot”--which pairs Farrar's warm voice with jangly guitars and up-tempo melodies not heard in their previous efforts. From his studio in St. Louis, Farrar called NEWSWEEK’s Jac Chebatoris to discuss where he’s been all this time, and what it means to be a “pioneer.” Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You married your high-school sweetheart and you have two kids. Did that play a part in your sort of taking a break from it all?

Jay Farrar: It did. I really did want to spend more time with them and watch them grow. I knew that I wasn’t going to have a chance to do that again--at least I didn’t foresee that--so I wanted to scale back a little bit. [...]

When you first came out with Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt you were quickly ordained the pioneer of the whole “alt-country” movement. You were very resistant to the idea of that.

At the time it just seemed a little weird because we’d been doing Uncle Tupelo for about seven years, and up to that point, there were just some loose terms thrown around like “roots-oriented rock” or something like that, and then all of sudden it was called “alternative country” and there was a magazine [called No Depression, which took its name from the band’s debut album, although Uncle Tupelo wasn’t involved with it]. It was just a little strange to get acclimated to it at first.

But it had to be exciting, no?

[Laughs.] It was more confusing than exciting because a lot of people were confused about the fact that there was a magazine with the same name as an Uncle Tupelo record. So you know, it was just one of those things. I’m sure there were a lot of well-intentioned people who came up with the whole idea, and it’s gratifying to think that someone believes we started the movement, but that’s not the way I really looked at it. I mean, there were so many bands that were doing similar things in the ‘80s--bands like the True Believers, Rank and File, Jason and the Scorchers.

Uncle Tupelo & Son Volt are okay, but it doesn't get any better than Jason and the Scorchers' Golden Ball & Chain.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 29, 2005 9:50 PM

Damn good album. Have it on vinyl. But I think "Anodyne" is better.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 29, 2005 10:06 PM

This is eerie. I also fell for Jason & the Scorchers, after hearing their single White Lies....way back in the 80's

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at July 30, 2005 7:04 AM

Yay to all that. And their first EP with "Absoultely Sweet Marie" is killer; sends chills down your spine. Like Ghostcat, I have both it and Golden Ball and Chain on vinyl.

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at July 30, 2005 10:25 AM

Alt-country?? That's an oxymoron, isn't it? You can't alt country, that'd just city-fy it wid all them fancy newfangled riffs and stuff that them young'uns learn in the big city. That's like having a veggie-burger. What's the point?

Ever notice that in the 60's it was the rock and roll kids who grew their hair long while country music stars kept their manly crew cuts. Nowadays the rockers are shaving their heads, while the country stars have hair down to their shoulders. Wassup with that?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 30, 2005 11:48 AM

Not much. They were twenty years out of date then and they still are now. Not that there's anything wrong with that! Speaking of old fashioned, any Junior Brown fans in here?

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 30, 2005 3:07 PM

Junior's awesome.

Posted by: oj at July 30, 2005 3:15 PM

i am in the mood to buy a few cd's, starting with "Golden Ball and Chain". alt-country doesn't really appeal to me so can anyone recommend some titles to compliment GB&C ?

Posted by: cjm at July 30, 2005 4:44 PM

CJM: Jerry Lee Lewis' Live at the Star Club and The Greatest Live Shows on Earth. They are a little hard to find but well worth the effort.

Posted by: pepys at July 30, 2005 6:03 PM

CJM: Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly, if you haven't got any.

Posted by: ted welter at July 31, 2005 2:05 AM

The 2nd best live rock album of all time: Little Feat's "Waiting for Columbus".

#3rd best: Neil Young's "Live Rust".

Best angst album: Counting Crows "August and Everything After".

Best cosmic-spiritual album: Grateful Dead "American Beauty".

Best cathartic album: Uncle Tupelo: "Anodyne".

There's more where those came from.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 31, 2005 2:06 AM

Pretty much everything by Revrend Horton Heat. Especially the greatest hits package.

If you like it weird, check out the crazy drug addled Texan Roky Erickson.

Posted by: Pepys at July 31, 2005 5:00 PM

Ghostcat: Have you heard the two live Jerry Lee albums I recommended? Little Feat are great but Jerry Lee is one of a kind.

Posted by: Pepys at July 31, 2005 5:03 PM

Junior Brown, "Twelve Shades of Brown". If you don't have them already, Johnny Cash "Live From Folsom Prison" or "American 4".

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 31, 2005 5:17 PM

Pepys -

Jerry Lee live? Hell, I lived Jerry Lee in my teens. Nearly OD'ed on him, I'm afraid. (There's a blues-rocker here in Portland with a song out called "Try Not To Kill Me When You Say Bye Bye." I've heard it just twice on a local jazz station, and it's Jerry-Lee-meets-George-Thorogood. Awesome.)

Joe -

"Folsom" is on my top ten live list. No. 1 is "Allman Brothers at Fillmore East". If you get through the first track with your socks still on, you have no hope.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 31, 2005 6:11 PM