Interview: Jay Farrar Reflects on the 20th Anniversary of Son Volt’s Debut Album
Twenty years ago, in the first issue of No Depression, the groundbreaking alt-country magazine's co-founder, Peter Blackstock, described Son Volt's 1995 debut album as one that was "headed for the back roads."
Led by Jay Farrar -- founding member and co-frontman of genre pioneers Uncle Tupelo -- Son Volt explored those backroads with ease throughout Trace's 11 tracks. Now, 20 years later, Farrar is taking fans on another trip through the sounds of the Midwest with a reissue of Trace, unearthing eight previously unreleased demos and an entire never-before-heard concert from the now-defunct New York City club the Bottom Line. The 20th anniversary release of Trace -- available Oct. 30 in digital, CD and 180-gram vinyl editions -- carries on the legacy of Son Volt, along with Farrar's unwavering commitment to the foundations of country music.
Ahead of its reissue, as well as an upcoming acoustic tour dubbed "Jay Farrar Performs the Songs of Trace," Farrar spared a few moments to catch up with The Boot about the album. While the backroads of the Midwest may look a little different in 2015, Trace and its leader still navigate them with ease.
As you've gone through everything surrounding the anniversary of Trace and the album's reissue, is it hard to believe it’s been 20 years?
It went by in a flash, didn’t it? It is hard to believe. When I go back and listen now, the band sounds good and visceral. The band sounds experienced but not polished -- just how a rock band should sound.
How long has this reissue been in the works?
Probably the better part of two years. I guess you could go back about 15 years, when I drove to North Carolina to pick up some stuff from storage from my management company there. I found the Live at the Bottom Line tapes on these very large analog reels. I brought those back and just recently dusted them off and started thinking about how to actually listen to the tapes. They’re very specific tapes: They’re large, and they also had to have a very specific SR noise reduction, so it was a process just to listen to them. I’m glad I did, though.
The tapes I picked up were definitely the most interesting, and I knew they would sound good because they were recorded on analog in the mobile recording truck. I can’t say for sure it was the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck, but I remember being in the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck, so if this is not from that, there’s another tape out there that is.
I’m sure you’ve gone over a thousand different moments in your mind throughout this process, but is there one that sticks out to you as "the best" from the Trace sessions?
Ultimately, I was ecstatic to actually be playing with a pedal steel guitar and a fiddle. That instrumentation is what inspired me to write some of the songs for Trace. Actually getting into the studio and hearing the layer of sounds and the way those instruments fit together, that was inspirational to me.
Leading up to that, the whole writing process was liberating: It was a liberating time for me, both creatively and personally. I was living in a new city, in New Orleans, and making long drives across the country and listening to a lot of country music on AM radio -- that sort of found its way into the lyrics, like on the song “Windfall.”
What a perfect track to open the album. Along with the newfound freedoms, what was an obstacle you faced with this new band and record?
The distance involved was both creatively liberating and sort of an obstacle, I guess, just in terms of the long drive from New Orleans to Minneapolis. I think you can sort of hear the energy in the recording itself, and that means things went well.
Did you think it was important to distance yourself from the work of Uncle Tupelo?
I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it, but I’m sure I was conscious of it. I was taking things in a more traditional country instrumentation, taking that approach, trying to define what Son Volt was about.
You mentioned the driving from New Orleans to Minnesota. You’re from Missouri, you move to Louisiana ... How did you settle on recording Trace at Salmagundi Recording Studio in Northfield, Minn.?
It was the drummer in the Jayhawks who mentioned this guy to me, Steve McKinstry in Northfield. He had a great collection of vintage mics and used tube mics, and I found that to be a draw. So, that’s where we wound up.
The one thing the drummer of the Jayhawks did not tell me is that the Malt-O-Meal factory was also there, pumping out that smell day in and day out. [Laughs] One other interesting factoid about Northfield is that’s where the James Gang sort of met their match with the locals.
How did you decide to cover Ron Wood's “Mystifies Me” as the album closer?
We would start rehearsals up in Minneapolis at [bassist] Dave Boquist’s apartment. We’d take breaks and pull out records and listen to them. I was an early Faces fan, an early Rod Stewart fan, and Dave pulled out that Ron Wood record, [I've Got My Own Album to Do], and I just thought that song was great. So, I don’t know if it was ever intentionally supposed to be on the record, but it just turned out that it fit.
With the reissue of Trace comes a wealth of demos. Did you ever feel vulnerable going through your acoustic demos from a couple of decades ago?
No, not vulnerable. It seemed like something extra should be added to the reissue, so the demos provide contrast to the studio versions, and one can see the development of the songs from the demo stage to the studio. I definitely focused on the demos that were the most sparse -- these were four-track demos -- for inclusion on the reissue. There were actually other demos that were studio demos with the band that will probably released somewhere else.
In terms of the Bottom Line show, yeah, it’s a live show, and there will be some hiccups here and there, but part of what I can hear is that it sounds like my singing voice is almost scorched from smoking cigarettes. You know, there was a very small dressing room at the back of that club, and it was probably the size of a closet. At that time, all five guys in the band were smokers, so that record could’ve just been called, Five Dudes Smoking in a Closet. [Laughs] I can still sing it seems like, but I can barely talk.
The sound quality of that show is exceptional.
Yeah, it was recorded with that mobile recording truck on analog tapes, so you’re not going to get a better sound than that. I wish I had more information on that truck; I couldn’t really track it down. There was a similar show, if not this one, that was recorded with the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck. Doing a little research, their truck was in New York in 1996 when this show was recorded, but I just can’t say for sure it was the one.
Rather than looking at 20 years ago, let's fast-forward to 20 years later: You're still making music as Son Volt, but you've also explored various side projects, as well as developed your own solo career. As things evolved over the years, did you ever think about hanging up the Son Volt moniker?
Son Volt is the framework that I enjoy working in. I like to take breaks from it, but I also like getting back to it. I think it goes back to what inspired me to get into music, that band framework, as well as playing more acoustic-based solo stuff like Bob Dylan or being inspired by someone like Bob Dylan. I’ll always go between the band framework and the more solo-oriented stuff; it’s just a matter of where the songs seem to want to go.
I’ve actually been recording a couple of songs that could end up on a solo record, and then I’ve written 10 or 12 songs that I think could fall in the Son Volt band framework. It still remains to be seen how those turn out, but hopefully next year, something will be out there.
It’s easy for me to sit back as a fan and talk about how much I love Trace or what its history means to me, but do you think the album carries with it a legacy?
I think the record holds up well in retrospect, probably better than expected. Certainly I never expected a song like “Drown” to do well at radio. Overall, yeah, the band sounds good and not completely polished, but that’s the way it should sound.
Do you still find inspiration in rural America?
I live in the city now, so I guess the answer would be that I don’t as much. I spend most of my time in the city and find inspiration there, but going back to this record ... recording Trace, I spent a lot of time in rural America, whether it was going to my girlfriend’s college in the middle of Illinois or playing shows throughout the Midwest. It was normally in small college towns in the middle of nowhere. That was primarily where bands got a foothold back then, that’s where we spent our time. And there was inspiration in it for sure.
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