After the dissipation of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar re-channeled his country-tinged alternative rock leanings into a new band, Son Volt in 1994. It’s been 26 years now since the supergroup released their debut album, Trace. To mark the milestone, the band— currently comprised of Farrar (vocals, guitar), Andrew DuPlantis (bass guitar), John Horton (guitar), Mark Patterson (drums), and Mark Spencer (keyboard, steel guitar)—unveil their 10th studio album, Electro Melodier.
Due July 30 via Thirty Tigers, the 14-track collection follows Union (2019), brimming with Trump-era takeaway tracks. The new title of the album— taken from the names of two vintage amplifiers from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s—encompasses the collection’s unique blend of folk, country, blues, soul, and rock that Son Volt has pioneered for a quarter of a century.
“The idea was that those would somehow maybe be emblematic of the focus or the thrust of the aesthetic of the record,” Farrar tells American Songwriter.
These songs were written in the early days of the pandemic. Unlike their previous releases, Farrar deliberately noted that politics would take a backseat in this project. But, the gravity of the global pandemic in 2020 and political fallout seeps into the music through the artists’ subconscious. Pregnant with the fear, bred from unprecedented uncertainty, the writing is undoubtedly topical.
The album opens with “Reverie,” an aching anthem for those, like Farrar, who watched the world burn outside of their windows for months on end. Beginning on this note, the band continues to build from their bedrock of Americana soundscapes weighed down with social commentary. Returning to their deep-run roots for this song shaped the rest of their milestone album.
“Arkey Blue” is one of these candid tracks. Named for a Honky Tonk in Bandera, Texas, Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar, where Hank Williams, Sr. allegedly carved his name, the Southern rock ballad takes unexpected political turns. The poignant lyrics address rising environmental concerns and even quotes Pope Francis on “turbulent rains never before seen” in the context of the pandemic.
But even his most direct songwriting reveals an uncharacteristic optimism. This might suggest that Farrar has softened throughout his career, but the enduring artist insists he diluted his radicalism to make space for melodic retrospection, focusing on what, he says, “got me into music in the first place.
“You have to look around and take stock and recalibrate and wonder if you’re ever actually going to be out playing music again. But you know, I tried to make the best of my time to focus on songwriting and recording,” says Farrar.
His roots-rock duet “Diamonds and Cigarettes” chronicles creating a life with his chosen partner. Featured vocals by country singer Laura Cantrell add levity to the sultry soul of the tribute track. According to Farrar, “it alludes to long term relationship with my wife and how much that that element is appreciated during something like the pandemic.”
“Lucky Ones” draws further inspiration from his beloved wife while leaning further into the country-sphere.
In the years and records since their inception, Son Volt is often credited for pioneering the alt-country or Americana movement which has come to dominate mainstream or commercial music over the last few years. For Farrar, he and his band’s contribution is just part of the influential give-and-take of music traditions.
Just as “Livin’ In The USA” is a nod to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Farrar shares they borrowed the “doomsaying prophecies” from the likes Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” set to the guitar riffs of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.”
“I think it’s great that anyone would think that I was involved with starting any kind of movement, but the reality is, that’s not the case. Because no one ever really starts anything —influences come from somewhere else,” Farrar says humbly. “And the best any artist can do is try to put their own experiences and their own stamp on it. And that’s certainly what both Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt try to do. But overall, it’s just one, one big continuum, you know, every artist learns from other artists and they, hopefully, pass something along in the process.”
Pre-order Son Volt’s new album Electro Melodier, here.
SON VOLT TOUR DATES
8/7 – Open Highway Music Festival – St. Louis
8/20 – Fitzgerald’s – Berwyn, IL
9/9 – George’s Majestic – Fayetteville, AR
9/10 – Diamondhead Music Fest – Tahlequah, OK
9/11 – Knuckleheads – Kansas City, KS – MO
9/18 – Ludlow Garage – Cincinnati, OH
9/19 – Headliners – Louisville, KY
9/23 – Visulite – Charlotte, NC
9/24 – Haw River Ballroom – Saxapahaw, NC
9/26 – Graceland Guest House Theater – Memphis, TN