- Jay Farrar is the dude with the grunge-era goatee.
If Wilco's Jeff Tweedy is the temperamental artist driven by perfectionism and ego -- as the documentaries Man in the Sand and I Am Trying to Break Your Heart suggest -- then Son Volt's Jay Farrar truly is his complement: a soft-spoken, humble musician more enamored of the process than the end result.
They're both incredibly talented and forever linked via the myth of their former band, Uncle Tupelo. The band's 1990 debut album, No Depression -- with its punk attitude and titular cover of a Carter Family country-gospel tune -- helped turn an entire generation of "anything but country" into lovers of American roots music.
Farrar's no conversationalist, but he isn't exactly guarded. He laughs when I mention Stephen Colbert and questions the "searchyness" of Son Volt's terrific new disc, The Search, which features plenty of big-picture thinking. He's also not one to worry about his alt-country legacy. "I don't spend any time thinking or looking backwards. Instead, I look forward to new projects," says Farrar from his studio in St. Louis, where he recorded the new album.
The youngest of four brothers, Farrar grew up around music. His mom took him to his first show, Buddy Rich, when he was eight. When he was 11, he joined his brothers Wade and Dade in the Plebes, but they wanted a fourth member -- Jeff Tweedy, who within two months had chased Jay's brother Dade right out of the band (beginning a predilection that would shape Tweedy's life).
After Uncle Tupelo's tumultuous breakup in 1994, Farrar began Son Volt. The band's first outing -- Trace, an album driven by the minor hit "Drown" -- is regarded as its best. That lineup released two more records before Farrar embarked on a solo career. "After basically a decade of keeping pretty busy with both Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, I think I needed a change of pace and a different challenge," admits Farrar.
While still firmly ensconced in roots music, 2001's Sebastopol and 2003's Terroir Blues allowed Farrar to explore different textures and tones. With keyboards and electronics playing bigger roles, Farrar also worked with negative space, particularly on the latter album, letting its stark austerity speak as loudly as the music.
Furthermore, the experience of playing solo tightened his stagecraft. By the time Stone, Steel & Bright Lights -- a DVD documenting his 2003 tour backed by the band Canyon -- was released, Farrar's obvious comfort and rapport with the audience stood in stark contrast to his heretofore dour stage demeanor. "Sometimes -- certainly having been in the band context -- you fall into certain ways of doing things, and stripping that away and doing it solo was just a completely different approach, and I learned a lot by doing it," he says.
Eventually, Farrar came to miss the "band dynamic and the band chemistry." What's more, he longed for the electric, a fact confirmed by that Canyon tour. So he decided to take Son Volt out of mothballs. However, negotiations with the original members hit a snag, so he recruited a new lineup to back his songs. They produced 2005's Okemah and the Melody of Riot, a set of politically minded rockers.
"But having done Okemah, I think the idea was to just look elsewhere for further inspiration," he says of The Search.
The result is arguably Farrar's best release since Trace and possibly his finest ever. Rather than moving away from the roots-driven sound as Tweedy has, Farrar has figured out how to deepen it, employing a variety of tones that reach back to his solo albums. The addition of Canyon keyboardist Derry deBorja after Okemah also made a big difference; he contributes a flavor largely absent from Son Volt's sound. Farrar agrees: "I felt like he complemented the band quite well. Certainly his contributions on this record are prevalent."
While The Search's 14 tracks are cut from a similar cloth, each has its own character -- from the old-timey "Methamphetamine," whose organ helps conjure memories of the Band, to the jangly title track, which could be an outtake from R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. Farrar got started writing early and, for the first time, had more than enough material. "The fact that there were more songs to work with allowed the freedom to try out different textures, different orchestrations," he says.
"The Picture," the effusive horn-fueled single that comes on like Springsteen's E Street Band, is the album's highlight. After posing an apocalyptic future of hurricanes, earthquakes, and constant war, Farrar offers only "We'll know when we get there/If we'll find mercy." It's a dark little bit of reality to bury inside such an anthemic tune. However, Farrar claims that he's actually grown less cynical as he's gotten older. "You're supposed to be idealistic when you're young, but it wasn't the case with me," he says. "I wouldn't say it's idealism, but optimism's in there somewhere."
Pressed again on the subject of his role in popularizing alt-country, Farrar shies from the spotlight. Though Uncle Tupelo kick-started a movement whose momentum has carried countless coattail-riders to glory and exposed an army of middle-class suburban kids to music as old as their grandparents, Farrar takes no credit.
"Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. It's really impossible to quantify," he says. "I look at it as more of an overall continuum, where people share ideas and are inspired by others, but you can't really pinpoint things as to their origin."
Whatever the final verdict, you can be assured Farrar doesn't really give a damn. He's too busy moving forward, never straight. "The search for new ideas and inspiration," he says, "that's kind of what keeps me going."