Son Volt's Jay Farrar

“I was having a lot of fun doing the solo-artist thing, but I started missing the whole band dynamic, and I kind of felt like Son Volt was unfinished business,” says Jay Farrar, singer, songwriter, and occasionally uneasy icon of the alt-country movement. Okemah and the Melody of Riot [Transmit Sound/Legacy]—the first new Son Volt album in seven years—brings the “band dynamic” to its rawest form by presenting tracks that were recorded almost entirely live in the studio.
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“I wanted to get back to the fundamental esthetic, and capture what four guys can do in a room, because there’s a certain feel that gets lost when you overdub a lot of tracks,” says Farrar. “We learned a song a day, and recorded it as soon as things started to click on the same day. We found the true energy of the songs lived somewhere between the first and tenth takes.”

Having played lead guitar “by default” in his former band, Uncle Tupelo, Farrar now employs Brad Rice as a full-time lead guitarist in Son Volt, and concentrates on lead vocals and holding down the rhythm. Farrar is far more than a strum-along hack, however, and his band epitomizes the give-and-take of carefully crafted two-guitar arrangements. By playing off Rice’s lead lines on Okemah, Farrar crafts vibrato-laden chord structures, and simple, single-note runs into chewy, rich textures.

“I picked a guitar with a chime-y rhythmic sound, as opposed to a big, fat lead tone, so there would be room for the other player’s lead lines to punch through,” says Farrar. “Live, I’ve been playing a Gretsch/Electromatic Pro Jet, which is a good utilitarian guitar that handles the rhythm role well, and yet still delivers when I need to play a lead.”

Farrar tours with a reissue ’59 Fender Bassman, though he recorded the album using an Ampeg Gemini and a Fender Blues Junior.

“I grew up liking the whole Neil Young smaller-is-bigger esthetic, so I use smaller amps in the studio.”

A fondness for low-toned alternate tunings—a favorite being C, G, C, G, C, D—also led Farrar to expand his guitar choices when tracking the album.

“I used a ’60s Epiphone Melody Maker and a ’70s Gretsch Roc Jet,” he explains, “because they had wide enough necks to accommodate the heavy-gauge strings required for the flatted tunings.”

In addition to “letting the vocals and drums breathe a little more,” pitching the resonant frequencies of Son Volt guitar parts in a lower register has helped keep the songwriter’s muse perky.

“Using alternate tunings opens doors,” says Farrar, “because you’re not traveling over the same old ground. It makes the whole songwriting process seem fresher, and it gives you that exhilarating feeling of learning the guitar all over again.”