Son Volt’s Jay Farrar discusses protest record “Union” and headlining Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Son Volt
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Thursday, Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m.
How much: $25-$40
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
Singer and songwriter Jay Farrar of Son Volt doesn’t expect his band’s potent new protest record, “Union,” to change the world. But he hopes it can inspire some dialogue and prick the conscience of some listeners.
“I’m not so presumptuous in thinking I’ll really change anyone’s mind,” Farrar said last week in a phone interview from the road. “It’d be great if it made someone ask questions or learn more about some of the content of these songs a bit further.”
The band recorded “Union” with the legacy of American protest music in mind. Farrar recorded his voice and guitar tracks at Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma and the Mother Jones Museum in Illinois, drawing inspiration from the singing Dust Bowl poet and the labor organizer.
“Along the way, songs lined up that had some protest content,” Farrar said of the choice to record in these monuments to American resistance. “I felt like those songs, in particular, would benefit from being recorded in a more challenging environment, like the Mother Jones Museum and the Woody Guthrie Center, that might inspire along the way. And I think they did.”
In the tradition of Guthrie and Phil Ochs and early Bob Dylan, Farrar has taken the day’s headlines and made art of them, aiming to raise the voices of America’s dispossessed and reflect on the injustices of his time.
“I was just writing about the things I was reading about and thinking about,” he said.
Son Volt released “Union” in March and has been on the road with the new songs since then. The band will headline Belly Up Aspen on Thursday night during a Colorado swing that also includes the Gothic Theater in Englewood on Friday and Washington’s in Fort Collins on Saturday.
In the ballad “Reality Winner,” Farrar tells the story of the young military intelligence officer-turned-whistleblower who leaked to the press an NSA report on Russian election hacking to the press in 2017 and who is now serving a five-year prison sentence for it. Reading about Winner’s prison sentence, her aggressive prosecution under the Espionage Act and her inability to tell her story to the public, Farrar was inspired to take on Winner’s voice and write in the first person.
“I thought the least I could do was write a song to let others know her story,” he said. “She’s really not having much contact with the outside world. She’s cut off from talking to journalists and such.”
In “The Symbol,” Farrar has penned another first-person account, this one about a Mexican immigrant who helps rebuild New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but now faces deportation and separation from his children in the Trump era.
“That was from reading the headlines, some of it from my personal experience — knowing there were a lot of Mexican workers brought into New Orleans to rebuild after Katrina,” Farrar said. “There was a nexus of those memories and what was going on in the paper with DACA and people being deported.”
The record’s anthem, no doubt, is “The 99,” an electric guitar-driven rocker for the dissatisfied 99% that’s mobilized since the days of Occupy Wall Street which Farrar will relish performing in the 1-percenter haven of Aspen. Playing it has been a high point of recent Son Volt shows, Farrar said: “You can’t argue with guitar solos, right?”
The 13 songs on “Union” are often quiet and the lyrics plainspoken, in the American folk and alt-country tradition that Farrar has epitomized over the past three decades. His writing is poetic, intelligent and focused, his voice restrained and often weary.
“Union” joins a short list of Trump era rock protest albums with lasting power, following the likes of Drive-By Truckers’ “American Band” and Gov’t Mule’s “Revolution Come … Revolution Go.”
The five-piece Missouri-based band’s recent live sets have been stacked with about half of the songs off “Union” as well as Son Volt tracks spanning the band’s 25-year, nine-album catalog. Occasionally, they’ll bring out a classic from Uncle Tupelo, the massively influential alt-country group that Farrar co-led with Jeff Tweedy from 1987 to 1993.
“Uncle Tupelo tried to take in a wide spectrum of sounds and styles of music, and that comes through in those records,” he said of the band’s revered early 1990s discs. “I do still like to roll out some songs from that era once in awhile.”
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This summer the Aspen Music Festival is emphasizing this discovery track more than before, as the 2021 season marks the launch of its initiative to spotlight diverse composers who identify as AMELIA (African-American, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian).