Photo: David McClister

Jay Farrar Talks Pedal Steel Guitar, Open Tunings, and Jerry Garcia

Son Volt's Jay Farrar opens up about the impetus of the new album, another new record about a half a year out, and how Tom Brumley and Ralph Mooney are probably his favorites on the pedal steel guitar.
Son Volt
Notes of Blue
Thirty Tigers

Like the Woody Guthrie of the 21st century, Jay Farrar’s timing for music as medicine is tediously perfect with the new Agent Orange Presidency, and as torn a country as this 38-year-old privileged white boy has ever seen. In true hero form and back with ample helpings loud and gritty as sultry sweet, Farrar and Son Volt released Notes of Blue, their eighth full-length offering earlier this year. Chock full of that beautiful countrified style we all know and love, but this offering is shrouded in blues, a heaping helping of blues if you will, specifically from the Mississippi corridor.

The new record is not a reinvention of 1995’s Trace, nor is it a twin fiddle country gem like the 2013’s Honky Tonk either. Notes of Blue finds Farrar and company in a catacomb of unrest and artistic fortitude. Dipping into the personally hallowed ground of Mississippi blues legends Fred McDowell and Skip James, and just plain legend Nick Drake, Farrar has delved into new open tunings albeit the custom sound of those aforementioned via their guitar strings tuned to an open chord with which to bounce a finger-picked melody off a trance-like bass line usually thumbed out on the fat strings. Harping on these mystic tunings and droning single chord romps that speak volumes in prose and underlying meaning but also provide a primitive soul-cleanse invaluable to the listener. There simply is no better sound than that Mississippi Hill Country runaway train, whether dancing, making love, or fighting, it permeates and infects rumps and minds alike, saddled in to forget about everything else in life if only for three to seven minutes.

“The idea was trying not to be complacent and make the same record over and over,” Farrar tells PopMatters, “so alternate tunings take you down a creative road you haven’t been down before and there were three guys, performers with three distinctive tunings I really wanted to look at Fred McDowell, Skip James, and Nick Drake. When you’re learning a new tuning you’re kind of, everything’s new it’s essentially as if you’re learning a new instrument, new chord configurations, so from a creative aspect, it just takes you down a different road. I always feel like there’s a mystique attached to those three guys and their tunings, so I just wanted to get inside those tunings and see what was there.”

It’s been rumored that Skip James learned his haunting open D Minor tuning preference from Bahamian soldiers while fighting in a World War. He brought that jangly style back home to Bentonia, MS and kept up for days playing and experimenting with this “new” tuning with fellow legendary Bentonia bluesmen, Henry Stuckey, and later Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, who himself had a formidable release in last year’s long-player It Is What It Is. “Open D minor was used on ‘Cherokee Street’ and the tunings would often determine the melodic structure of the vocal, and in the case of that song, it points a little bit more in the direction of reminding me of ZZ Top or something. The more acoustic based stuff on Notes Of Blue points more in the direction of Mississippi John Hurt or someone like that,” added Farrar.

This is the 20th full length from the now legendary, singer, songwriter, and phenomenal guitar picker. A voice and pen that’s championed a movement bolstering a couple of movie soundtracks and a couple of perfect live albums, one would assume that at some point Farrar would feel trapped in the legend and legacy of Uncle Tupelo and then the ever-changing band Son Volt. Perhaps even a hindrance, boxing his creativity?

“I guess I never really think about Son Volt in those terms, in terms of a legacy or whatever,” chimed Farrar. “I guess with the re-issue of Trace, I did embrace the idea of going out and playing those songs and playing them in a striped down fashion just to, in some cases, reinvent those songs and try to get to know them better. That was an experience where I did just sort of run with it, but I think over that year and a half of doing acoustic shows I wanted to get back to playing some electric guitar for this recording. That was one aspect I wanted to focus on with Notes of Blue, another was trying out more finger picking style guitar.”

As the impeccably more handsome Yoda of this whole alt-country turned Americana rah-rah, one may be plainly curious as to what his take is on genre-labeling and art-tags. Hell, the man had a magazine named after his debut album with his second band after the Primitives, Uncle Tupelo’s now timeless cow punk gem, No Depression. A title ironically yanked from the Carter Family classic “No Depression in Heaven”.

“Yeah I’ve seen tags and labels come and go over the years for sure, but ahh, probably the one that’s most all-encompassing or at least all-inclusive is Americana. I mean compared to all the rest it makes some sense at least, uniquely American can fall in those parameters.” Farrar and I both agree that with the current alt-facts and alt-right conundrum, it’s definitively time to move away from alt-country and semi-reluctantly accept the term Americana.

With the latest political buffoonery and the overall righteous divide in American politics, any true artist’s creative juices are certainly reaching a boil. When asked if Farrar is feeling invigorated in these trying times with a desire to turn up the amps even louder, I was meet with the answer we all want to hear as fans of Son Volt and that perfect Midwestern country drawl, as monotone as it is harmonious.

“I think as I’ve been making a set list for this upcoming tour I’ve been subtracting sleepy songs and putting in more electric, up-tempo stuff,” he continues, “so it’s definitely headed that way. And yes, since the election I’ve been writing a handful of songs and we’ll see where that goes and hope to get to recording some of those in the next six months or so.”

Our only fact to set and wonder on is whether it’ll be under the Son Volt moniker or a Jay Farrar record, after all the Son Volt legacy, or lack thereof has divulged many a player over the years with a baker’s dozen’s worth of crack musicians along the way. Farrar adds, “It could be either at this point, it remains to be seen how things shake out. I hope to keep writing and have enough to record within six months or so.” Amen, clearly not a long while to wait for another set of new tracks.

When presented with the question of what instrument he leans on the most as a writing tool anticipatory of hearing “guitar”, Farrar chided, “Ahh, it depends on the project. Over the years especially on solo records I’ve kind of gone off in different directions and done more writing on piano. This time around I just wanted to focus on fingerpicking cause it’s something I’ve done a fair amount of over the last several years playing pedal steel guitar in side bands with Gary (Hunt). That just gave me the impetus and confidence to give it a go on guitar.”

Farrar picked up the pedal steel guitar a few years back and plays out live in several different bands around the St. Louis area. Multi-instrumentalist Gary Hunt was no doubt a purveyor of this notion. One I can assimilate with tenfold as I’ve been on a journey of sorts with and without the confusing yet ethereal 10-string sad machine. “Right, I never [laughs] dove into the ten string. I was just playing eight string and it was a little bit easier to comprehend. I was focusing more on the late ’50s/early ’60s pedal steel styles which I could sort of get a handle on, but the chromatic 10- and 12-string stuff that’s the one I’ll be doing in the retirement home for sure.”

Having both settled on Ralph Mooney and Tom Brumley as a pedal steel hero (Speedy West too), both musician’s luscious licks bringing the twang to Buck Owens, and Mooney also with Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard, and Ol’ Waylon, among others. Farrar shared, “Ralph Mooney was really amazing. The stuff he did with Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart was just incredible. Then of course that Tom Brumley stuff is pretty amazing too. Do you know that story about him playing the pedal steel on ‘Together Again’ where he only had like two pedals to work with, and that’s kind of what determined that sound on that solo.

“It’s a great story,” he continues. “Supposedly the other guys in the band, it was Ralph Mooney’s old road pedal steel that Buck kept around and supposedly the other guys in the band sort of sabotaged it. Brumley could only get the two pedals going, but it made him come up with those amazing combinations on the fly!” Finishing his thought with, “It could be legend, you know, but it makes sense cause he’s pushing some boundaries on that song. So it sort of makes sense.”

Suburban St. Louis’ Scotty’s Music was the end all, be all of pedal steel shops. Boasting not only Farrar and yours truly as customers but one portly, bearded, jazz-country-bluegrass loving, Californian who went on to quietly play that pedal steel guitar solo on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Teach Your Children Well”.

After just mentioning the Grateful Dead and our enjoyment of them stumbling through country numbers, Farrar stated, “It’s interesting you mentioned the Grateful Dead: Jerry Garcia was actually a real good pedal steel player. There’s an old shop here in St. Louis called Scotty’s, and legend is Jerry Garcia supposedly came into the shop and those guys helped set him up with a steel. Not sure whether that’s true or not, but … [laughs] but that’s the way the story goes anyway.” Sadly, Scotty’s has fallen victim to the same ailment as many small town music shops, both record and instrument outlets — Closed Indefinitely.

A constant and undying force in roots music and all its offshoots will always be Jay Farrar. No matter what band name it is, once you hear that voice with a sad little machine and a solid backline, it is undoubtedly Farrar, and it almost intrinsically sucks you in.

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