Son Volt
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From One Legend to Another: Son Volt’s Jay Farrar Remembers Doug Sahm

Paying homage to outlaw country titan Doug Sahm, Jay Farrar of Son Volt reminisces about his friendship with Sahm and how his influence radiates to this day.

Day of the Doug
Son Volt
Transmit Sound / Thirty Tigers
16 June 2023

It’s best to say it straightaway: Jay Farrar is a legend. Along with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, he co-founded the critically acclaimed band Uncle Tupelo during the late 1980s in the middle-American locale of Belleville, Illinois, which is part of the greater St. Louis area. Frequently credited with launching the alternative country (“alt-country”) movement of the 1990s, the music of Uncle Tupelo surveyed the landscape of roots rock Americana across a meteoric sequence of four albums – No Depression (1990), Still Feel Gone (1991), March 16-20, 1992 (1992), and Anodyne (1993). Successors to their intervention include acts like the Bottle Rockets, Drive-By Truckers, Jason Molina, and, not least, Son Volt, which Farrar founded in the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s breakup. 

Like the Velvet Underground in a different context, Uncle Tupelo did not wholly invent the alt-country genre. However, they updated and fundamentally changed it by pointing to new musical possibilities. Incorporating the sound and energy of indie rock while respecting traditions of songcraft, Uncle Tupelo tacitly argued that the Stooges, Dinosaur Jr., and the Carter Family could belong under the same roof. 

More importantly, their music conveyed purity and authenticity by addressing issues of working-class life and limited opportunity in the wake of the Reagan era. Songs like “Graveyard Shift” and “Whiskey Bottle” from No Depression and reworked traditionals like “Moonshiner” from March 16-20, 1992 depicted such conditions through telling detail of alcoholism, isolation, religion, and exhaustion, balancing elements of despair and fighting resilience in equal measure. Farrar’s vocals, which sounded impossibly aged beyond his years, played a vital role in making such content and themes convincing, tapping into a wellspring of memory and emotion about forgotten American landscapes and livelihoods.

Farrar’s career since Uncle Tupelo has continued to explore similar themes and the connections between different music traditions, whether with Son Volt, as a solo artist, or through collaborations with fellow musicians like Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). Over the past three decades, he has released nearly two dozen full-length albums. In addition to studio LPs, his catalog includes five live albums plus two soundtracks, The Slaughter Rule (2002) and One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Music from Kerouac’s Big Sur (2009) with Gibbard. 

Reflecting his commitment to the spirit of past predecessors, the latter album included lyrics that drew from the writing of Jack Kerouac. Another tribute album, New Multitudes (2012), marked the centenary of Woody Guthrie, involving Anders Parker (Varnaline), Will Johnson (Monsters of Folk), and Jim James (My Morning Jacket).

Against this backdrop, Farrar’s new album with Son Volt, Day of the Doug, falls into this pre-existing pattern of reinterpreting the material of esteemed forebears. In this instance, “the Doug” in question is Doug Sahm, the Texas singer-songwriter who also became a legend in his time. Uncle Tupelo fans will remember his guest appearance on the Austin-recorded Anodyne, where Farrar, Tweedy, and Sahm belted out a full-throated rendition of Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” from his album Texas Rock for Country Rollers (1976), which he released under the name Sir Doug and the Texas Tornados. 

Day of the Doug continues this relationship, albeit as a posthumous homage, with Sahm passing away in 1999. Consisting of 14 tracks, the album covers a range of Sahm originals drawn chiefly from his cosmic cowboy heyday during the 1970s. It even includes two telephone voice recordings of Sahm that open and close the LP. 

Originally from San Antonio and considered a child prodigy, Sahm released numerous albums across four decades with the Sir Douglas Quintet, the Texas Tornadoes, and as a solo artist. He is best known for his skillful blending of different styles from time spent in San Francisco’s hippie Haight-Ashbury scene during the 1960s, in addition to being a longtime resident of his home state of Texas with its close proximity to Louisiana’s Cajun culture as well as the Tejano soul of the US-Mexico border. He collaborated with a diverse range of musicians, including Flaco Jiménez, Jerry Garcia, Roky Erickson, and Bob Dylan. He died of a heart attack at the still early age of 58.

Several affinities can be drawn between Farrar and Sahm that explain this project. Both have sought to integrate different musical genres into their songs – whether folk, punk, country, roots rock, psychedelia, or Tex-Mex/Tejano styles. Both have been founding members of influential bands, whether Uncle Tupelo or the Texas Tornadoes. Both have spent meaningful time in California – check out Farrar’s first solo album, Sebastopol (2001) – that fundamentally reshaped their music. For these reasons, and perhaps above all, Farrar and Sahm have eluded easy categorization, resulting in enigmatic, “outlaw” personas that let the music speak for itself. 

In retrospect, doing an album with Sahm’s music seems like an all-too-natural fit for Farrar. Day of the Doug is a rich collection of bright Texas dancehall numbers with standout tracks, including “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows”, “Beautiful Texas Sunshine”, “Huggin’ Thin Air”, and “Seguin”. That list of favorites could easily rotate, with the two-stepping “Keep Your Soul” or the roadhouse rocker “Juan Mendoza” with vocals by Son Volt bassist Andrew Duplantis as easy alternates. The record is among the most spirited LPs Son Volt has released. 

PopMatters had a chance to catch up with Farrar in August while he was on tour for Day of the Doug with Son Volt – currently, Farrar, DuPlantis, Mark Patterson, John Horton, and Mark Spencer – who are also celebrating and performing their debut Trace from 1995.

I want to start by saying I remember seeing Uncle Tupelo in Boston in December 1993, as well as a second performance in Maine in 1994. Both shows were great, amazing.

It’s amazing that you caught that last show. I bought a green Gretsch guitar in Bangor, Maine. That’s how I remember a lot of tours, based on what instruments were found along the way.

Speaking of tours, you are currently touring with Son Volt for Day of the Doug, and I wonder what your thoughts are on the recent passing of Robbie Robertson. In an article on the influence of Robertson and the Band, The New York Times cited Son Volt as an inheritor of the music tradition he helped establish.

We have covered “The Weight” on this tour, which, unfortunately, wound up being timely. But certainly, Robbie’s association with Dylan and all that has manifested in my songwriting. I’ve always been more of a Levon [Helm] guy, but without Robbie, without his songwriting, he was paramount for the Band‘s success. So, it has been great to pay tribute to him.

Did you ever cross paths with him?

No, not Robbie, personally. Uncle Tupelo did a short touring stint with Michelle Shocked and the Band, sans Robbie. That was a formative early musical experience, traveling with Taj Mahal, too.

What year was that?

It was 1992.

So before Anodyne.

Before, yeah.

Moving to your new album, Day of the Doug, this also brings us to Anodyne as well. I have a number of questions about Doug Sahm. I should say, too, that I’m originally from Austin. This was before Austin exploded with growth, and it was a time of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Townes Van Zandt, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Willie Nelson had trouble with his taxes and was on TV trying to sell The IRS Tapes (1991). Being from St. Louis, how did you first connect with Sahm? Did you have some sense of affinity with the kind of outlaw country that Austin was a hub for?

I first met Doug randomly at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco while on tour. There was a guy talking to the desk person – a gregarious, loud voice – and it just sort of clicked. “Wait a minute: I know that voice.” So, I met him there, and he probably didn’t remember me later on. When I was recording Anodyne at Cedar Creek in Austin, just through discussions with management and the record company, we said, “Hey, is there anyone around that we could record a song with?” Doug’s name came up, and Joe Ely as well. We ended up doing the song with Doug, and that was a great experience.

So, you hit it off immediately, then? 

Yeah, it was great. The mystique of the Texas musicians was inspirational and always there, especially Townes Van Zandt around that time. And, of course, we were familiar with Joe Ely‘s stuff, but Doug’s catalog was still relatively hard to find, the real good stuff. A lot of his records had gone out of print. So, we were excited to work with him.

This current project was born out of discussions with two Austin guys, Andrew Duplantis and Mark Patterson [who are current members of Son Volt]. The music of Doug, being an Austin guy, is just woven into the fabric of Austin. So, we wound up talking about what vinyl records we found, the old stuff, and whatnot. But the thing that was really the catalyst for me was coming across The Complete Mercury Masters (2005), as it’s called. There were so many gems on there. I was especially drawn to Doug’s more pop sensibility on songs like “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows” and “Yesterday Got in the Way”.

On Day of the Doug, you have an intro and outro where it sounds like Sahm is leaving a telephone answering machine recording. After Anodyne, did you keep up a relationship with him?

Yeah, our relationship was primarily based on whoever was passing through town. Doug was great about that. He was great about getting on the phone, as evidenced by the phone messages. That was his early version of social media, getting on the phone and calling people. He was supportive of Son Volt, and I’ll always be appreciative of that. There was no putting on airs with him. He treated us as equals, and that was inspirational for us.

Did you ever write songs together?

We talked about it. It was one of those things, you know, where he was pretty busy with the Texas Tornadoes at that time. The fact that we did not live in the same city meant that it was just going to be difficult to do. But I did send him a cassette. The song was “Hanging Blue Side” off the third Son Volt record [Wide Swing Tremolo, 1998]. I sent him half the song at the time, and nothing ever came of it. So, I finished it, and that’s where it wound up. But yeah, we talked about co-writing. 

It sounds like he was a close friend in some ways.

From a musical perspective, sure, he was. He was a mentor. He was always eclectic. He was there during the whole outlaw country movement and all that, but the periphery of that is where he had more wide-ranging influences. You know: the Tex-Mex, the country and blues, R&B, 1960s pop, and Cajun fiddle. It was just hard to keep him contained. 

Your catalog is very similar in that respect. You’ve also experimented with different genres. Is that a direct reflection of Sahm’s influence?

I think it is in terms of following wherever the inspiration goes, whether it’s not being tied down to one sound or one approach. Doug was a mentor in that way, whether he knew it or not.

Listening to the album, it seems like you both are kindred spirits. I should add that it’s a big, substantial album with 12 tracks that range across his catalog, though it gravitates toward his early prime during the 1970s. What was your approach to choosing the songs and the logic of listing the tracks? Was there a particular method to the album you were pursuing or things you wanted to highlight in his work?

Sure, the songs I was drawn to and the songs I did want to highlight, even before I came across The Complete Mercury Masters box set, were songs I had never really heard before because they were originally on vinyl records or compilations, which were pretty limited and difficult to come by. I wanted to shed light on those songs that resonated with me, particularly the ones that had more of a pop sensibility about them, like “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows” and “Yesterday Got in the Way” in particular – the melodic structure of that song amazes me. I think Doug was probably drawing some inspiration from a lot of the Mexican music he listened to. 

Andrew Duplantis, our bass player, brought in some other songs like “Float Away” and “Juan Mendoza”, both of which he sings on the record. Those are from Doug’s 1970s party influence period, which is a nice period to throw in the mix.

Andrew Duplantis: how long have you known him? 

Long time. I think it was 1998 or 1999 when he opened some shows for us. He’s based in Austin. There are pretty heavy Austin connections now, but in the early days, it was just about the music of Texas. It resonated with this Missouri boy.

In terms of the recording process, how long did that take?

Five days in between touring. We just sandwiched it in during some touring in the spring of 2022. Someone mentioned that this record has an upbeat mood, and I think one of the reasons for that is that we were happy to be out touring because our previous tour, a couple of months before, was canceled because of COVID-19. So, this was a sort of rebound effect from returning to normalcy and touring. There is an energy associated with this recording, I think, because of that.

It seems like a lot of bands took the pandemic as a period of reflection followed by the excitement and energy of being able to go out on tour again. It’s a common pattern.

In many ways, this project was born out of that as well. We had time to sit around and talk and dig deeper into Doug’s musical catalog.

If you were to promote one or two favorite songs or your favorite album by Sahm, what would they be?

You know, the one record that did come out during the outlaw country movement and is somewhat available – I think it’s still either in print or you can find it on vinyl – is Texas Rock for Country Rollers. It’s the album that has “Give Back the Key to My Heart”. That was one of the first records that resonated with me and maybe with other folks. But the goal of this Day of the Doug project was not to try and assemble a “greatest hits” collection but just the songs that I felt needed to be highlighted and heard. My advice for listeners is to enjoy this record and then try to track down the originals.

The genre of the covers album is one that musicians of all types have engaged with at some point in their careers, and it’s always an interesting moment in a musician’s catalog because it reveals something different and can often be deeply autobiographical. Of course, there are such albums that are cliched because they go through songs that are widely known. This album is on the other end of the spectrum, which seems much more personal. You’re paying tribute to somebody you knew personally, and you’re also reintroducing this person. It’s like you’re assisting with that person’s legacy and helping it endure. Did you think about that when conceiving this album and recording it?

I did not, but now that you mention it, I hope that that’s the case and that it expands and highlights his contributions. If that comes out of this project, that would be great. There was that personal aspect to it, and I did feel that it was important to include the message he left for me on the answering machine that I somehow miraculously found in a box after 25 years. So, I hope people find out about Doug’s music through this.

Given the success of this record, are there other musicians you might do something similar for?

There’s one of my old-time buddies that we toured with, Alvin Youngblood Hart, who has always been a fan of Henry Townsend, a blues guy from St. Louis. So, maybe at some point, we’ll reconnect with that and look into Henry Townsend’s music. Henry was one of those guys who was playing blues in the 1930s, and he lived up through the 1990s. I did see him play once, so maybe on the horizon at some point, Henry Townsend will be the one.

Speaking of the St. Louis music scene, is it something you’re still closely tied to?

I was deeply ensconced in it during the 1980s and 1990s and then started to tour nationwide and worldwide. You become removed from it, in a way. But the early aspects of it, just getting out to see the diversity of musical styles, especially the blues, was very formative and instrumental for me. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that.

I started going to shows, and you could get in, whether it was with a fake ID or whatever back in those days. And I had older brothers. So, yeah, it was a matter of going to St. Louis, getting in the shows, and going home and assimilating whatever you’d seen. That’s what I did for decades.

When did you first start playing?

I fell into playing music when I was about 11. The guitar and I then started playing with my older brothers. It was usually a mix of rockabilly and garage rock-type music. Wherever you could, wherever anyone would have you, you know, whether it was a backyard barbecue or whatever. Things just evolved from there. You know the rest of the story. I still play in a country and western swing band with one of my older brothers, Dave. He’s a standup bass player.

You’ve had a number of different projects in addition to recording under your own name. Is that circumstantial? How do you decide what project to record or perform with?

It’s just a necessary part of the process, I think. You do something for five years, and then you need to step to the side and work in a different creative environment and then get back to where you were before. I don’t want to say it’s random; it’s necessary. Perhaps necessarily random. But again, it’s just nice to follow wherever the inspiration goes. What’s paramount to me is just having a creative outlet, and working with different folks is a good way to do that.

What are Son Volt’s future plans? Are you going back to the studio soon?

No concrete plans after this tour that runs through September. At that point, I plan on doing some collaborative writing with other folks. We’ll see how that shakes out. Again, I’m just trying to follow wherever the inspiration goes. For me, going into different creative working environments like that it’s something I’m always looking forward to doing.

So, we haven’t heard the last of Jay Farrar.

We hope not.