Two decades ago, former Uncle Tupelo frontman Jay Farrar released the album Trace with his then-new band, Son Volt.
Today, Farrar is on tour performing the album in its entirety to celebrate the anniversary—including a stop at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace on Thursday, June 16.
Uncle Tupelo came out of a band, first called The Plebes and later The Primitives, that Jay Farrar started with his brothers, Wade and Dade; drummer Mike Heidorn and Jeff Tweedy would later join the group. Tweedy was influenced by punk—which was not exactly popular at the time in their hometown of Belleville, Ill., part of the St. Louis metro area. The group played blues songs at fast tempos during their early gigs.
After Wade and Dade left the group, the remaining members changed the band name to Uncle Tupelo. The combination of vintage-country and folk influences with punk rock was unique, and Uncle Tupelo would release four albums before the group split in 1994. Farrar went on to start Son Volt, with more of an Americana and roots-music sound, while Tweedy went on to form Wilco.
Farrar also recorded one album with Anders Parker under the name Gob Iron.
I recently spoke to Farrar via telephone. He has a reputation as a difficult interview; his answers are brief and to the point. I asked him whether he thought people playing his kind of music had it harder when Uncle Tupelo formed 1987, or today.
“I think surprisingly, in many ways, the current climate out there now reminds of what it was like in the early ’80s,” Farrar said. “There’s not a lot of major-label support for music like this, and only a handful ever really breakthrough. I see it as a period of struggle in many ways for a lot of people out there. But I also think from an artistic standpoint, things will be better for it down the line. I think there are some better things on the horizon.”
Does Farrar listen to any of the new alternative-country or Americana acts out there today? The answer is, surprisingly, no.
“I pretty much concentrate on learning more about what has happened in the past. I’m not up on what’s new and happening out there,” he said. “Recently, I’ve been getting really into Junior Kimbrough’s first recordings, if that tells you where my head is at right now.”
Farrar explained what makes Saint Louis a great city for music.
“It’s a crossroads, and there’s certainly a lot of musical history here,” he said. “Musical ideas historically travel up and down the Mississippi River from New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis and then up to Chicago. It was a melting pot of musical styles coming through, especially blues.”
One of the most interesting albums Farrar has done is a collaboration with Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, One Fast Move or I’m Gone, the soundtrack for a documentary with the same name focusing on beat writer/poet Jack Kerouac. The songs featured lyrics directly from the pages Kerouac’s Big Sur, as well as concepts that came out of the book.
“That approach represented something I had never actually done before—taking lyrics from a book, or just concepts from the pages of the book itself,” he said. “It was a challenge in a way, although I had worked with some of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics prior to that, so that gave me the confidence to forge ahead and see what could be done with the work of Jack Kerouac. I found it to be really inspiring, being able to step aside and work in that framework. It was a great experience, and working with Ben Gibbard was great. We had never met before, and we met through the work of Jack Kerouac.”
Some artists have worked with lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie that he never made into complete songs. Farrar actually recorded an entire album of songs based on those lyrics. For Farrar, Woody Guthrie is still a big influence.
“For me, it goes back to my childhood and going through my parents’ record collection and pulling out Woody Guthrie records,” he said. “It’s fundamental and elemental in that way for me. Of course, he’s still relevant today.”
Of course, Guthrie is well-known for his protest songs.
“I think there will always be a need for protest songs,” Farrar said. “The best protest songs get written when there’s a real need for them. They will always be there.”
Farrar said we can expect to hear many protest songs should Donald Trump get elected president.
“Absolutely!” he said. “I get the feeling people are already preparing for that.”
Is there anything Farrar would change about Trace when he looks back on it after 20 years?
“I don’t know. Things sort of happen organically, and it’s the only way to make a record,” he said. “Listening back, it sounds good and visceral to me, and the band doesn’t sound too polished. The impetus for me as a songwriter at that time was getting to work with a fiddle player and a pedal-steel player. Getting to explore that at the time was great.”
Performing the album in its entirety has been a positive experience, he said, and has given him opportunities to tweak the songs.
“I wanted to have the songs presented more stripped-down and boiled down to the essence. I felt that was the best approach,” he said. “In some cases, I get to rework the songs, but all while still acknowledging the release of the album 20 years later. Currently, (we’re performing as) a three piece: myself; Gary Hunt on guitar, fiddle and mandolin; and Eric Heywood will be back after walking the Appalachian Trail, playing pedal steel.”
Farrar said there’s more to come from Son Volt in the near future—and there could even be another Gob Iron album.
“It is in the works. We’ve recorded 10 songs as a power trio, but it’s still in the works, and ideally released next year,” he said about a new Son Volt album. “We just need to find a home for us.
“Anders and I have also been in contact about doing something with Gob Iron. We talked about recording some songs over the summer, and we’ll see if that comes to fruition.”
Jay Farrar will perform at 9 p.m., Thursday, June 16, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com.