The Quiet Man: Son Volt's Jay Farrar

From a windswept bluff high above the Mississippi, Jay Farrar gestures across the great river. On a cold afternoon in early March, the 30-year-old leader of Son Volt stands in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives, pointing east toward his childhood home, the flat farmland of Western Illinois. Gray clouds hang over the brown river, which flows past leafless winter trees on the far shore. "The riverÕs up a lot," Farrar says dryly. Flooding upstream on the Ohio River has wreaked havoc in Kentucky and Ohio, and the overflow has begun to engorge the Mississippi. Farrar indicates a single line of hardwoods parallel to the river on the Illinois side: "You donÕt usually see water on the other side of those trees." Farrar also mentions his fatherÕs career on the river, but he doesnÕt say too much about anything. As he walks through a deserted childrenÕs playground, the wind blows his dark, scruffy hair around his boyish face, covering and uncovering his brown eyes. Farrar has begun to grow a beard, which overruns the big, Civil War-style muttonchop sideburns that cover his cheeks. His face is also hidden by a pair of old-fashioned specs, the kind worn by Malcolm X and Floyd the Barber. A literate, deeply soft-spoken songwriter and bandleader, Jay Farrar shows his face to the world only through a series of impressionistic images, more so than ever on the bandÕs new album, Straightaways (Warner), successor to Son VoltÕs widely acclaimed 1995 debut, Trace. Since Farrar has never lived more than 15 or 20 miles from the Mississippi, whether in Western Illinois, St. Louis or New Orleans, the river shows up in his songs from time to time, either as a central plot element or merely a metaphor. Sometimes itÕs hard to say which. And FarrarÕs not telling."ThereÕs been some confusion even in our biography," says Mike Heidorn, drummer for Son Volt and an original member of Uncle Tupelo, FarrarÕs old band. "Jay, being the lyricist, is not one to second-guess what anyone thinks. IÕve seen it happen after a gig: someone comes up and says, 'Hey, man, that song "Drown," is that about blah-blah-blah-blah?Õ And every time heÕll go, 'Could be. Whatever you think.' He never wants to pinpoint it." Heidorn, 29, grew up around Farrar, but itÕs hard to say how well Heidorn knows the man. Heidorn, whose sister dated one of FarrarÕs three older brothers when they were growing up in Belleville, Illinois, a town of about 40,000 people a few miles east of East St. Louis. Though the drummer says he "didnÕt talk to him ever until freshman year" of high school, he remembers first encountering Farrar as an opponent in an elementary school basketball game. "I just remember him being able to jump straight up and get a rebound," Heidorn says. "HeÕd plant himself right at the basket, jump straight up in his black Chuck Taylor high-tops." Heidorn doesnÕt recall if Farrar actually wanted to play, only that someone told him he was good. Farrar, he says, acceded in a mopey voice like Winnie-the-PoohÕs friend Eeyore: "Oh, OK." For Farrar, "Oh, OK" is saying a lot. No one who has ever talked to him would describe Farrar as talkative. As an interview subject, heÕs closer to J.D. Salinger than Little Richard. Like Heidorn says, Farrar prefers to let his songs speak for themselves.A trip across the swollen Mississippi brings Farrar to the bandÕs rehearsal space: two rooms in an old hosiery mill in Millstadt, Illinois. Driving over, Farrar picks up the signal from KCLC-AM: "Bluegrass 12 Hours a Day." "Boy, they must have really boosted their wattage," Farrar says. "I donÕt ever remember being able to pick this up outside the city." If the laconic Farrar serves as Son VoltÕs answer to Eeyore, Heidorn plays Tigger. Where Farrar is quiet, reserved and gloomy, Heidorn is outgoing, outspoken and upbeat, even in the face of his recent divorce. After Farrar goes home, Heidorn offers a history lesson over a few $1.35 Budweisers at an old Millstadt bar called OttÕs. "Me, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, and JayÕs older brother, Wade, were in the Primitives together," says Heidorn, a short-haired guy with a slightly bulbous nose. "We played music together in my parentsÕ basement, in JayÕs basement, and in Jeff TweedyÕs parentsÕ basement. That was the very first time we all sort of came together and played our instruments together." By night, the Primitives mostly played Õ60s covers, from stuff by the Yardbirds and the Beatles to obscure songs by the Standells and Chocolate Watch Band. By day, Farrar worked at the Booktrader, a used book store owned by his mother, and where he discovered Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. At home, he discovered folk music. "It was a good environment to grow up in," Farrar says, over dinner and coffee in St. Louis. "Both of my parents had an appreciation for music, and a willingness to pass on what they knew." Though his dad worked more than 20 years on a dredge boat in the Mississippi, cutting channels for ships to navigate, Farrar says his family didnÕt fit the usual working-class model. "I donÕt know where they fit in. My dad definitely had a blue-collar job, but he sang and played music. My mom Ñ I guess she was somewhat less blue collar than my dad. She sat me down and taught me how to play the guitar. She always had a good record collection, too Ñ the Dillards, Clancy Brothers, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly." When Wade Farrar left the Primitives around Õ87, Jay Farrar, Heidorn and Tweedy changed the name to Uncle Tupelo and focused on crafting original songs. The sound also shifted as their musical horizons broadened. The influence of bands like the Ramones, the Clash, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen gave Uncle Tupelo the energy of punk, while country accents came from all corners: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Neil Young, Buck Owens, Gram Parsons and the folk music Farrar grew up on. The songs of Uncle Tupelo see-sawed between FarrarÕs angry tunes about small-town life and TweedyÕs more wistful songs about love and loss Ñ Tweedy playing Paul McCartney to FarrarÕs John Lennon. Across three albums recorded for Rockville, the music swung between pounding rock driven by electric guitars and folk music played on acoustic guitars, fiddles and mandolins. By the time the group released its major label debut, 1993Õs Anodyne (Reprise), it had become a thriving cult band. Uncle TupeloÕs influence has since fueled a mushrooming Americana movement in rock, chronicled every other month in No Depression, a magazine which shares its name with the title track to the first Uncle Tupelo album and an old Carter Family song. After Anodyne, Farrar made the difficult decision to quit Uncle Tupelo. Farrar says he had begun to feel limited to writing songs in a certain style, and he felt increasingly excluded from the groupÕs decision-making: "The band was based on a democracy, which was a good thing. But the manager at the time [Tony Margherita, who now manages Wilco] and Jeff were a bit more unified as a force, and I was kinda the outsider." Heidorn had been the first to go, quitting just after Tupelo recorded its last indie album, March 16-20 1992. Out of the music business and back doing paste-up in the composing room of a local newspaper, Heidorn heard about the breakup through the grapevine. With the drummer gone, Farrar had lost an ally. "People would go, 'But Mike, you were that lukewarm water between Jay and Jeff,Õ" Heidorn says. Tweedy regrouped quickly, founding Wilco with HeidornÕs Tupelo replacement, Ken Coomer, and other musicians who played on Anodyne. For his part, Farrar moved to New Orleans and wrote a lot of songs. "I had never lived anywhere else other than the St. Louis area, where youÕre constantly in contact with your friends and family," Farrar says. "Which, ultimately, is a good thing, but I just needed the experience."While Farrar headed to the southern end of the Mississippi to sort things out, Jim and Dave Boquist were working on their music at the opposite end of the river. Like Farrar and Heidorn, the Boquists came from a small town near the Mississippi, growing up hearing the Rolling Stones and the Raspberries on the radio. The brothers moved to Minneapolis and St. Paul from Rosemount, a dying Minnesota farm town that lies south of the Twin Cities. In 1994, they had a regular gig at the upscale restaurant where Dave worked. "WeÕd play there simply because I worked there," says Dave, whose long brown hair curves around his open, expressive face. "We were pretty different from most of the things that they had. WeÕd usually draw a big crowd." The Boquists have been familiar faces on the Minneapolis music scene since the Õ80s. Jim, 35, played with the Mighty Mofos and other bands. Dave, "pushin' 40," sometimes played with the Jayhawks in their early days. Jim, a moody, freckle-faced rocker who looks like Paul Westerberg with longer hair and less nose, played bass for Joe Henry on a tour with Uncle Tupelo in the early Õ90s. "At one of Uncle TupeloÕs last shows, I met Jay for a drink in Des Moines," Jim says. "We had a talk, and decided to stay in touch." When Farrar started looking for people to help him record demos for the songs he had written after Anodyne, the Boquists made perfect sense. "Jim and I had been in contact since the Joe Henry tour," Farrar says. "We had talked about doing something together. And his brother Dave just seemed to be the logical choice to round out the band." Jim Boquist now plays bass for Son Volt, and adds high, sweet, slightly fractured harmonies to FarrarÕs world-weary vocals. Dave plays a little of everything: guitar, fiddle, banjo, dobro and lap steel. (Eric Heywood frequently sits in on pedal steel.) When Heidorn called to offer his services on drums, a new band was born. Having delivered only one album with Uncle Tupelo, Farrar still had a deal with Warner Bros., and considered naming the band Grain Volt before settling on Son Volt, an oblique homage to blues legend Son House. The band converged in Illinois to record the initial demos, then Minnesota for Trace. Those drives along the Mississippi and the flooding of 1994 inspired some of the most memorable songs on Son VoltÕs debut, including "Tear Stained Eye" and "Ten Second News." Though Trace bears some resemblance to FarrarÕs original demos, the band came together with no expectations about how it would sound as a unit. "It does take some doing finding how the songÕs gonna be relative to his raw conception of it," Jim says. "Oftentimes with four people, four instruments, a song will . . . morph. ThatÕs a band becoming a band." To complete the process, Son Volt turned to Brian Paulson , the same guy who produced both Anodyne and WilcoÕs debut, A.M. A resident of Chapel Hill, N.C., Paulson helped Son Volt achieve a warm, organic sound on its two albums that suits FarrarÕs songs well. Though Trace contains FarrarÕs most memorable songs, Straightaways presents itself more forcefully, striking an adept balance between punchy rockers like "Picking Up the Signal" and delicate country ballads like "Creosote." "Brian Paulson deserves a lot of credit," says Dave. "Like in photography, you try to get a good negative. I think thatÕs what he tries to do Ñ get the most unadulterated, good sound, so that he doesnÕt have to fine-tune too much." Where Farrar once wrote regularly about the pitfalls of small town life, he now explores redemption from a drifterÕs perspective. His songs used to be about barstools, bottles and factories the way Bruce Springsteen too often wrote about highways, cars and girls. In Son Volt, FarrarÕs songwriting has broadened, becoming more evocative and emotionally affecting as it becomes harder to pin down. "Lyrically, some of JayÕs songs donÕt really catch on with me right away," Dave says. "It takes awhile for me to sort of personalize Õem, to sort of understand Õem in my way." Farrar acknowledges that his songs donÕt always make sense on the first few listens: "I hate to call it stream of consciousness, but for lack of a better explanation, itÕs sort of true. ThatÕs how they come out. And part of it, I think, is just trying to avoid" Ñ he pauses, searching for his words Ñ "clichŽd, linear writing." Trace emerged from the same warm country-rock corner as vintage Uncle Tupelo, with such mysterious, autumnal sing-alongs as "Tear Stained Eye," "Loose String," and "Windfall," whose chorus sounds like a blessing for the beleaguered: "May the wind take your troubles away." On Straightaways, the lyrics are even more cryptic. Still, It says a lot for his maturity as a writer that Farrar can write songs as oblique as the new "Left a Slide" and "Last Minute Shakedown," while sustaining empathy and sidestepping artsy pretension. Sometimes, you can get Farrar to open up about a song. StraightawaysÕ modal ballad "Been Set Free," he says, falls in the grand tradition of Billy WilderÕs 1950 film Sunset Boulevard and Neil YoungÕs 1979 song "Powderfinger," in which murder victims tell their tales from beyond the grave. "My wife had written just the first verse, I guess, and just left the lyrics laying around," says Farrar, who married his long-time girlfriend, Monica, last year. "I noticed them and thought they were good, so I wrote the rest of the song. The song was sort of a response to the Uncle Tupelo song 'Lilli Schull.Õ She had sort of started the first verse from the womanÕs perspective, because she thought 'Lilli SchullÕ was a horrible song." "Lilli Schull," a traditional ballad sung by Farrar, appeared on Uncle TupeloÕs March 16-20 1992. In it, the man who murdered Lilli Schull tells his tale from a prison cell as he waits to be hanged, praying for forgiveness: "The fire where I burned her/Is again now in my sight." In "Been Set Free," Farrar matches the lyrics of "Lilli Schull" in cold intensity, but substitutes the suspect contrition of the original folk songÕs male protagonist with a believable resignation from the female storyteller in his answer song: "My lifeÕs been a burden/Now IÕm goinÕ home." FarrarÕs homey, monochromatic voice conveys tremendous empathy, and thereÕs an undeniable joy and lashing energy in the bandÕs music. But Farrar writes honest lyrics that look at the world with an ecclesiastical resignation both hopeful and hopeless: hopeful in conveying the cyclical nature of things, the way life renews itself; hopeless in that any one life can look pretty meaningless in the face of something as huge and ancient and unstoppable as the Mississippi. Despite evidence to the contrary, Farrar refuses to accept the theory that fatalism constitutes the great theme of Son VoltÕs music. "ThatÕs a little too narrow for me to be comfortable with," he says. "I hope that my songwriting has evolved enough to include at least some possibility other than fatalistic." He also naysays any notion that his lyrics accurately depict his view of the world: "The songs arenÕt necessarily a reflection of the way I look at my life. ItÕs sort of a cathartic process, I guess."Fatalism and catharsis never enter the conversation up on the bluff, in a deserted playground above the Mississippi. There, the talk goes no deeper than dredge boats and high water. After a brief look at the river, Farrar returns to his little red Honda and drives it north toward the Soulard historic district, St. LouisÕs answer to Bourbon Street. Sights along the way include a Sinclair gas station with a classic dinosaur sign and the big brick buildings of the Lemp and Anheuser-Busch breweries. This part of St. Louis looks like it hasnÕt changed much since the Great Depression. ThatÕs why Farrar likes it. (The last song on Straightaways, "Way Down Watson," laments the destruction of St. LouisÕs historic Coral Court Motel, a roadside landmark that fell victim to the wrecking ball.) Farrar parks on a Soulard side street. "This place has the dubious distinction of having the second-largest Mardi Gras in the country," he says. Pacing the sidewalks of Soulard, facing a fresh blast of cold air around every corner as evening descends, itÕs easy to hear the opening lines to "Tear Stained Eye": "WalkinÕ down Main Street/GettinÕ to know the concrete/LookinÕ for a purpose/From a neon sign." On record, Farrar sounds like a brooding visionary whose depths and mysteries equal those of the mighty Mississippi. In person, Farrar can sound like the most ordinary of men with the most ordinary of problems. A cold front just moved in yesterday, much to his chagrin. ThatÕs when Farrar started assembling a barbecue grill he received last year as a wedding present. "I started to put it together, but then it got cold," he says, speaking with all the gloomy resignation of Eeyore. "There was nothing for me to do but put it away again."

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