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Published: 2013/04/30
by Glenn H Roth

Jay Farrar: Honky Tonk and Junkyard Dogs

Jay Farrar has been busy writing lyrics for a new album and vignettes for a new book. Farrar was inspired by 1950s country music to make a new record and events from his life to write a memoir.

Farrar, the lead singer and founder of Son Volt, spoke to from his home in St. Louis to discuss his latest projects. Honky Tonk is Son Volt’s seventh studio album and Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs is Farrar’s first book.

Son Volt’s lineup is rounded out by Mark Spencer (pedal steel and keyboards), Dave Bryson (drums), Andrew Duplantis (bass) and Gary Hunt (fiddle and electric lead guitar). The band is currently on tour until the end of June in support of their new album.

Were you looking to get back to a simpler style of music?

The idea was to get back to the fiddle and pedal steel sound that started back with the first Son Volt record ( Trace ) and expand on that and also explore aspects of the music called the twin-fiddle sound. I found it to be a very captivating sound when I came across it on old country music records from the 1950s and 1960s. It’s an interesting sound because a natural chorus effect is created. The pitch is not exactly the same, but it’s very close. It’s a very captivating sound.

Did you play the pedal steel parts on the new album?

I didn’t actually play it. What happened is that I became immersed into listening and playing it with a band around St. Louis called Colonel Ford. I’ve been learning how to play the pedal steel but I did not play it on this record. I do think having learned the instrument, that it gave me a unique perspective when it came time to add that instrumentation to the record.

The first track on the new album, “Hearts and Minds,” really sets the tone of beautiful Americana music that you can listen to from start to finish.

Going into the recording, I knew I wanted to acknowledge and play homage to honky-tonk music but not feel limited by its parameters. That first song “Hearts and Minds,” is an example. It’s sort of an ancillary offshoot of honky-tonk music as it has a Cajun sound. There are some other songs where we stretch things out a bit like “Down the Highway,” which has an Irish flavor to it; and the song “Living On” has a soulful flavor. But I think from a lyric perspective, I embraced the lexicon from that time period and just kind of ran with it.

Where did the inspiration come from for all these new songs?

I would say that the inspiration came from listening to so much of it (honky tonk music) and getting into situations where I was playing it with a group of like-minded folks in bars. When it came to writing songs for the Son Volt record – making it more of a continuation of an aesthetic of the sound of the first Son Volt record just seemed like the natural way to go.

Is there a particular track that means a lot to you?

I guess in a lot of ways “Hearts and Minds” represents perseverance on our part because at first it started out as more of a honky-tonk shuffle beat, but it wasn’t working out to our expectations, so then we switched up to a Cajun waltz, then we had twin fiddles. The fiddle players actually tuned their fiddles down, so it’s actually a deeper fiddle sound. Just by being flexible, it allowed things to be more creative.

In the song, “Down the Highway,” there’s a lyric “Lessons lost, lessons learned.” Is that lyric reflective of your life journey?

It could be. Most of the lyrics I write are more of a composite of things observed in other people, mixed in with things that have happened to me. Once again, the lyrics on this record are much more thematic than any other record I’ve done before, because they all fall into that heartache and heartbreak realm, which is very much a part of the original honky-tonk music of the 1950s.

Also in “Seawalls,” there’s a line “Honky-tonk angels walking together.” Is there symbolism behind that lyric?

That’s a good way of putting it. Over the years, it took on symbolism. There are several songs. I believe the first one is from Hank Thompson (“The Wild Side of Life,” I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels) and then there is an answer song by Kitty Wells called “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” It became kind of a legendary phrase in the genre.

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