Jay Farrar: Honky Tonk and Junkyard Dogs
This is the band’s seventh studio album. To what extent would you say that this album represents Son Volt’s evolution?
I think over the years, there’s always been this duality – the electric side and the acoustic side of Son Volt. It’s certainly a yin yang approach to it that worked and fueled creativity, but this time around it was paramount to focus more on the acoustic aesthetic instead of going back and forth and it was the right decision.
We all have a background in this kind of music to some degree – some of us more than others. Gary [Hunt] in particular has an extensive background in country music and his versatility on his instruments is something to behold. And everyone else does great as well, except me (laughing).
How have you changed over the years?
It’s been a process of trial and error. You learn from each experience as you go along. I think being on stage for so many years, you get acclimated to what works and what doesn’t. You try to concentrate on what works because that’s the essence of it.
What works the best?
In this particular time frame—country music—but I pretty much follow the inspiration wherever it may take me.
What inspired you to write a book?
I have never written anything before except songs and very long postcards. It was just something I started out one day and realized I liked doing it and realized it was kind of like cognitive medicine. It really helped to take stock of where I’ve been and what’s happening now and it gives you an idea of where you want to go. I found that writing about very specific experiences and writing shorter pieces was paramount for me to actually get it done, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten it done. It probably would have been too intimidating to think about a linear novel or work, not that I’m incapable of doing that. It felt good to write, and I think of it more along the lines of folk writing. It is real events, observations in forms of vignettes. I tried to concentrate on experiences that were unique to me and a lot of that is wrapped up in childhood experiences. The dynamic with my father and also starting out in music, some of the stories represent even more of a contemporary view point.
Can you talk about your appreciation of the Grateful Dead?
Early on I remember in high school I had records on the opposite end of the spectrum. I had American Beauty and also had Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power. But going back to the pedal steel, there’s a pedal steel shop here in St. Louis called Scotty’s Music that goes way back to the 1950s. I took my pedal steel there to get worked on and the guys at the shop were telling me that Jerry Garcia had come through there and bought a pedal steel guitar from them. They say that’s where he got his first pedal steel here in St. Louis. It’s sort of a weird connection there. I also noticed Brad Sarno, who helped out on the recording part, put in a few, very inspiring Jerry Garcia pedal steel guitar licks without me having to ask for it. I’m not sure everyone realizes how talented of a pedal steel guitar player Jerry Garcia was.
How comfortable are you with playing the steel pedal guitar?
I’ve played it out with local bands on and off for two years now, so I can make some noise I feel OK about.
Is it difficult to learn?
Again, I chose one that had less strings. It has eight strings as opposed to 10 or higher. I chose one from the 1950s because of the character of the instrument. It has a particular sound that I like, and it was a little more accessible because it had eight strings and that meant less to learn.
You’re always collaborating with musicians outside of the Son Volt world. Is there someone right now on your wish list that you would really like to team up with?
The list would be pretty long. I did have the fortunate situation to play with Doug Sahm. He was someone I looked up to in terms of his songwriting, musicianship and his ability to embrace and find inspiration in a number of musical styles and incorporate all that into his songwriting. But to answer your question further, two words: Willie Nelson.
He’s just an icon and he’s been doing it for so long and he’s so talented at what he does. It’s really amazing.