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Photograph by Mark Ray

Small-Town Heroes: Andrew Duplantis, Dave Bryson, Jay Farrar and Brad Rice celebrate the fact that this article makes no mention of Wilco¹s Woody Guthrie albums.

Is This Land Made for You and Me?

Son Volt lyrically follow in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie on their first release in five years

By Peter Koht

Okemah, Okla., is a rather unremarkable town except for two things: it's the county seat of Okfuskee County, and the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. Jay Farrar of Son Volt is only concerned with the latter.

Guthrie's work has served as a kind of social touchstone for Farrar, whose own songwriting prowess has been repeatedly demonstrated through his involvement with both the seminal alt-county group Uncle Tupelo and its later transmogrification Son Volt. For Farrar, Guthrie "serves as a sort of inspirational character or a point of reference when thinking about topical issues. He had a willingness to take social injustice head-on and write about it."

On the latest Son Volt recording, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, Farrar and his band mates, guitarist Brad Rice, bassist Andrew Duplantis, drummer Dave Bryson and steel guitar player Eric Heywood, are following in the hell-raising spirit of Arlo's dad. Thirty-eight years after Guthrie's death, the group is keeping social consciousness alive in roots music, except that, instead of talking about the Dust Bowl and the banks, their songs speak about the encroachment of Wal-Mart and the ineffectiveness of electing patricians to positions of political leadership.

Farrar, who calls St. Louis home, draws much of his inspiration from the landscapes and social realities of rural America. On "Afterglow 61," the new album's second track, Farrar laments the creeping blandness that big box retailers are imposing on America's smaller cities. That "sort of corporate landscape is definitely detrimental to the character of many small towns," Farrar says, somewhat resignedly, "but at this point it seems kind of inevitable or unstoppable."

While the album's most powerful track, "Endless War," wasn't specifically written about our nation's current embroilment in the Middle East, Farrar does take issue with George the Second. On "Jet Pilot," Farrar's lyrics are based on "getting at the idea that people from a privileged background don't make the best political leaders." Citing Bill Clinton as an example, Farrar finds greater inspiration in the leadership of people "who kind of had to work their way up and understand what it is like for both rural and urban folks."

These expressly political tunes from Okemah stand alongside more traditional offerings about love, loss and the power of music. "I am a lot more optimistic these days. I think eventually things will find the right course. As long as there's discussion and people asking questions, we'll eventually find the right way." Then, seconds after delivering this statement of universal goodwill, Farrar deadpans that he is "drawing my optimism from the bottom of the barrel."

He has weathered the acrimonious breakup of Uncle Tupelo and his estrangement from former Tupelo band mate and current Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy.

Farrar has also seen his share of trouble with Son Volt, who were unceremoniously dropped from their major label contract after delivering three wonderful albums filled with rootsy and heartfelt rock. The band seemed dead after a five-year hiatus that saw Farrar release a series of solo recordings that explored alternate tunings, interesting song forms and a greater sense of experimentalism.

When Farrar tried to facilitate a reunion with his original Son Volt band mates (Dave Boquist, Jim Boquist and Mike Heidorn), they showed up with a lawyer. In a tone of restraint tinged with regret, Farrar explained, "People developed different priorities and different commitments and it didn't work out."

Left with a collection of new songs and no one to play them with, Farrar recruited the new lineup of Son Volt and got busy. The group has now solidified into a true band, kicking out country-tinged rock reminiscent of Farrar's earlier work, but edgier and more focused. Forever the cagey bandleader, the notoriously taciturn Farrar remarks that the current band "has a good dynamic, and it is a good mix. It looks like it might last a while."

Son Volt performs Saturday, Sept. 10, at 9pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; tickets $20/adv, $24/door. (831.423.1338; www.catalystclub.com)

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From the September 7-14, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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