for The Oklahoman
Jay Farrar, songwriter and singer for Son Volt, laments the state of things in no uncertain terms on the band’s new record, “Union,” released in March of this year.
“Lady Liberty, are you still here?” he sings in his trademark melancholy voice in the midst of 13 songs tackling prominent headlines from the last few years, the immigrant experience and the fate of whistleblower Reality Winner, among other things.
Farrar formed Son Volt in 1994 after leaving Uncle Tupelo, the band he co-wrote for with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Son Volt has undergone several lineup changes and done some stylistic experimentation since, including the blues-focused “Notes of Blue” record in 2017.
For “Union,” Farrar largely focused his songwriting in the traditions of protest folk songs, with calls for justice and character narratives inspired by tracks like Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” Son Volt recorded a portion of the record at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, and several songs at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center to draw inspiration from the museums’ namesakes.
Son Volt returns to Oklahoma for a Tuesday show at the Jones Assembly. Here he comments in a recent interview for The Oklahoman:
Q: As a non-Oklahoman, when did your relationship with Woody Guthrie start?
Farrar: The relationship with Woody Guthrie probably started when I found Woody Guthrie records in my folks’ record collection. Eventually I started buying his records and seeing the connection and the inspiration he gave to Bob Dylan and that sort of continuum. Woody was a spokesman for the underprivileged, and he kind of represented the idea that there’s more to life than just making a buck.
Q: Why was it important to you to record at the Woody Guthrie Center, in close proximity to his material?
Farrar: Part of it was a field trip just to get out of the studio, and the other purpose was to kind of highlight people that have made a difference — Woody Guthrie is one, and Mother Jones is the other. I felt like it would be a good challenge to get out of the recording studio to a different environment and maybe be inspired along the way.
Q: The Woody Guthrie Center is located on a street that was named after a member of the KKK, in a district of Tulsa that was formerly named after him. There are a lot of juxtapositions like that in this part of the country. How do you think being from the Midwest and South has affected your relationship to a folk music, and to politics by extension?
Farrar: I didn’t know that. Being in the middle of the country does inform the way you think about things and your sensibility. When you have members of your own family and friends that you know think differently than you, you have to kind of walk a fine line. That’s more or less the approach I tried to take with “Union”— putting some ideas out there for discussion really is what it’s all about. A lot of it was coming straight from headlines: “The 99” is kind of a composite sketch of the Dakota Pipeline protest and the Ferguson protest and the Occupy protest, going back a few years. “Union” is just kind of acknowledging the cultural divide that’s going on. That’s something you run into every day being in the middle of the country.
Q: You’ve said that it felt like a responsibility to address these topics in your songs. Is that the responsibility of a songwriter or just the responsibility as a human being?
Farrar: To me, they’re one and the same. Protest music seems to me to be a longstanding tradition that I was exposed to early on. It was much more pervasive going back to when I first started listening to music in the ‘70s, music that had come from the ′60s, the Vietnam War era. It was just much more commonplace then and through the ′80s and ′90s with punk rock. Protest music seems to be disappearing in some ways. It’s not as prevalent as it used to be.
Q: Do you have any sort of apprehension or concern about the shelf life of a record that is dealing with current events?
Farrar: I do and I don’t, you know. I don’t know if my songs will have a shelf life, but I’m certainly glad that people like Neil Young decided to do what they did, write a song like “Ohio.” To me that’s a timeless song, but during the writing of the songs for “Union,” there was a midpoint where I at least thought of that and tried to present two sides to the record. There are a few songs that are non-topical, where I was trying to kind of be inspired by a more regular rock ethos.
Q: With your song “The Symbol” (about a Mexican immigrant) as a parallel for Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” it seems like these sentiments are more timeless than I think we want them to be.
Farrar: That’s right. Unfortunately it’s almost like a certain theme that can just be updated every generation.
Q: When you’re writing, do you just write songs, or do you know that you’re writing a record — a collection of songs?
Farrar: It’s usually about three songs in probably. You get a sense that this is where the songs want to go either thematically or perhaps sonically.
Q: One of the hallmarks of your songwriting and producing is establishing guideposts for yourself like alternate guitar tunings or switching musical equipment, or even just deciding that you need to write so many rock songs on a protest record. What are some of the other parameters you set for “Union”?
Farrar: On “Notes of Blue,” I had concentrated more on using alternate tunings. That was also more of a skeleton crew of myself and Jacob Edwards and Mark Spencer playing a bunch of instruments. This time we had a band chemistry. We’ve played a lot of shows together on the road, and that’s reflected on this record. The guitar solos were handled by Chris Frame; I sort of stepped back and let him do that so there was a new flavor, a new perspective that was different from “Notes of Blue.” We talked about getting out to different recording environments where you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Just the idea of being challenged sort of makes things fresh in a way.
Q: If the songwriting is your half of a collective social responsibility, that implies there’s a hoped-for or expected response. You put this record out into the world. Now what do you want people to take from it?
Farrar: I sort of feel like I’m just asking questions, you know. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that these songs add to the discussion.