In discussing the 2013 Son Volt album Honky Tonk with Rolling Stone, Jay Farrar talked about how the sound of it not only reflected his current musical interests but also harkened back to the band’s earliest days. “It was like, ‘This is what I’ve been listening to, so this is what I’m going to write,’” he said. “But I think, also, the idea was to revisit and make this record a continuation of the pedal steel guitar and fiddle aesthetic that’s found in the first song on the first Son Volt record.”
The song he was referencing was “Windfall,” which kicked off Trace, the 1995 album Farrar recorded with his new band following the breakup of Uncle Tupelo. “Windfall” is a lovely encapsulation of everything Farrar brings to the table, no matter what band he’s fronting. It’s all there: the soulful moan of his vocals; the yearning melodicism; and the contemplative, stream-of-consciousness lyrics which can wander down foggy alleyways but always find their way back to the heart.
When this formula is melded to the sympathetic instrumentation found on “Windfall,” it’s impossible to resist. As Farrar intones his travelling blues, Dave Boquist’s fiddle and Eric Heywood’s pedal steel are there to streamline the bumpy ride as best they can. And when the chorus arrives and Farrar brightens his outlook somewhat, the music shakes free of the rough road and surges skyward.
In the first verse, Farrar drops us right in the middle of some sort of existential malaise and forces us to fend for ourselves: “Now and then it keeps you running/It never seems to die.” Although he never spells out what “It” is, we can guess from context it has something to do with the restless, empty feeling that puts one on a road with no fixed destination in the first place. “The trail’s spent with fear,” he warns, and then later hints that this journey will eventually claim even the most steadfast rider: “Waiting for the end/Not knowing when.”
When the second verse rolls around, Farrar orients the listener somewhat with details about the where and when of the trip, mentioning time zones crossed and the midnight hour passing. He also grants that even the loneliest trek comes with a soundtrack: “Switching it over the AM/Searching for that truer sound.” “Steel guitar and settle down,” he sings, as Heywood’s instrument sighs behind him to prove his point. Finally the ever-turning dial lands on something glorious: “Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana/It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven.”
At that moment, Farrar and company sweep back in with the chorus in to reinforce the benevolent feeling: “May the wind take your troubles away/Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel/May the wind take your troubles away.” On “Windfall”, Son Volt seems to say that the best you can do in this life is prepare yourself for the harder times that the road may uncover and hope that the winds of fate send more help than harm. And, at all times, you should make sure to have wonderful songs like this Son Volt classic on hand as your travelling companions.