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Prodigal Son: Jay Farrar ain't no founding father.

High Voltage

Jay Farrar makes his peace with the past

By Greg Cahill

At 38, singer, songwriter and guitarist Jay Farrar isn't completely comfortable with his status as a founding father of the alt-country movement. "Well, I am a father--I have two kids--but I don't know about being a founding father," he says, by phone from his home outside of St. Louis.

"That makes me sound like an old dude."

He still lives just a few miles from his hometown of Belleville, Ill., the St. Louis suburb that fed the restless spirits of Farrar and his cohorts in the three-piece Uncle Tupelo, a band that, after splitting in 1994, spawned two more revered underground bands: Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn spun off the tradition-bound Son Volt; guitarist Jeff Tweedy created the more experimental Wilco.

It's easy to see why Farrar--who performs a solo acoustic set on Jan. 22 in Petaluma--gained a reputation as a reluctant icon of the movement he helped create. In concert, he has sometimes shied away from his Uncle Tupelo material, whether it's playing a hillbilly gospel cover, an Ozark-inflected ballad or a bluegrass rendition of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog." His first three solo albums were a mixed bag that ignored his strengths and tested the temperament of fans; 2003's Terroir Blues even dished up experimental tape loops.

The critics weren't kind. "Most fans would have guessed that Jay Farrar was a cinch for a brilliant solo career," Mark Deming mused in the All Music Guide. "That hasn't quite been the case."

Ask Farrar about the Primitives--his and Tweedy's first high school band--and their subsequent success with Uncle Tupelo and beyond, and the musician heaves a heavy sigh. "Oh," he says. "You want to go way back there."

Sure.

At a time when Nashville was romancing pop and rock, Farrar and his pals could be found huddled late into the night in Farrar's parents' cold, musty basement or in a cramped rehearsal studio in an industrial district littered with wood shops and batting cages, listening to scratchy records by the '60s folk-revival group the New Lost City Ramblers and learning '60s garage-rock covers.

Eventually, the trio fused the simple heartfelt sentiments of traditional music with the fire of punk. The twangy angst-ridden result was heard on the band's 1990 debut No Depression, which took its title from an old Appalachian spiritual and subsequently lent its name to the rootsy sound that characterized the alt-country movement as well as the Seattle magazine that still chronicles its biggest stars.

The band recorded four albums, all reissued in the past couple of years with extra tracks, including their masterwork, March 16-20, 1992, produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. But shortly after finishing the 1994 major-label debut Anodyne, Farrar and Tweedy parted ways. "There's some truth to the notion that we both needed to chase our own visions and to allow us to mature as songwriters and people," Farrar says.

Despite his reluctance to embrace his own past, "way back there" for the most part is where you'll find Farrar these days. He recently released Stone, Steel & Bright Lights, a live album that resonates with the spirit of Uncle Tupelo and his best solo work. The album includes a cover of Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam" by Floyd founder Syd Barrett, who was fired from his own band after melting down on psychedelics and mental illness, which was part of Uncle Tupelo's concert repertoire for several years.

"I decided to resurrect it," Farrar says.

He also resurrected Son Volt. Earlier this year, the original lineup reunited to record Alejandro Escovedo's "Sometimes" for Por Vida, an all-star benefit album for the ailing Texas singer and songwriter. A legal spat has since led Farrar to hire replacement members for the upcoming Son Volt album. That new lineup will appear this spring at the annual South by Southwest music-industry bash in Austin, Texas.

"Son Volt has always represented a certain type of songwriting, a certain spirit, for me and I wanted to continue that," Farrar says.

And where does the band fit in, long-term?

"Guess that remains to be seen," he says. "I've got a few years left in me and expect to be around for a while. The best part of this is being able to do what I always wanted to do: play music as a professional. I feel fortunate to be doing that.

"Lucky, in a way," he adds with a laugh, "because, at this point, I can't do anything else."


Jay Farrar appears on Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Anders Parker of Varnaline opens. 8pm. $15. 707.765.2121.

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From the January 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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