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Published: 2013/03/09
by Brian Robbins

Son Volt
Honky Tonk

Rounder Records

One of the best compliments I can give Son Volt’s new Honky Tonk album is the fact – a fact, Jack – that after the first listen to the liner note-less advance CD, I was writing the PR folks to get a copy of the album credits … convinced that a few of the tunes were long-lost gems from ol’ Lefty Frizzell or Buck Owens or one of the Hanks (Thompson or Williams, perhaps). But no – these tunes all belong to Son Volt’s Jay Farrar … which shouldn’t come as a big surprise, as the man has worn a coat of authenticity as comfortably as an old thin-elbowed denim jacket since the Uncle Tupelo days. (Few people can put voice to the soul of a broken-hearted, black-lunged, alcoholic coal miner when they’re in their 20s – but Jay Farrar could.)

So, yes: the title of the album is Honky Tonk – and much of it is just that. Luscious twang; passages of pedal steel (courtesy of Mark Spencer and Brad Sarno) that make the emotions of a given song’s lyrics just a little higher/deeper/further/darker/lighter); baritone guitar cameos; fiddles, accordion, and mandolin in just the right places. “There’s a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune,” sings Farrar on “Down The Highway” and he proves it in classic fashion on Honky Tonk.

But there are also the touches that are anything but classic – except in Son Volt world: Farrar lyrics that push the boundaries of cadence for the sake of what needs to be said (and always pulling it off); unexpected expected chord changes and/or modulations (the Buckaroos might not have considered the path Son Volt takes after the first verse of “Bakersfield”, but it’s a good one); and unique rhythms and moods that manage to meld Saturday night at the vee eff dubya with the avant-garde.

The first whiff of the air-of-something-else that runs through Honky Tonk comes during the opener “Hearts And Minds”: it’s a lovely ¾-timer for sure, with the twin fiddles of Gary Hunt and Justin Branum leading the way. Heck, there’s even some accordion underneath things (courtesy of Thayne Bradford) along with some sweet pedal woven through. But just listen to that moment at the 1:17 mark when the music slams to a sudden stop … and for a couple of seconds all you hear is the low murmuring shimmer of the pedal steel, sounding like an early-chapter warning in a Stephen King novel. That is not a Hee-Haw moment, my friends.

Consider the soaring “Livin’ On” – the combination of the burbling, bubbling organ with the pedal steel takes the tune far beyond the roadhouse and dollar draughts; the unexpected-but-perfect stutter of Dave Bryson’s drums on “Shine On”; or just the unresolved chord that ends “Tears Of Change”.

What you have here is one more example of Son Volt doing what they’ve done since 1995’s Trace : doing what feels right at that moment; doing it right; and keeping it real. In this case it happens to be twang with a twist … in the bestest of ways.


Brian Robbins throws the sawdust on the floor over at

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