For much of the early part of the 21st century, Jay Farrar – frontman for Son Volt – has been considered one of the most important musicians in alternative country. From his work with the groundbreaking Uncle Tupelo in the early ’90s to his work with his current band and his own solo material, Farrar has never lacked for respect from critics or fans.
While this year’s “Notes of Blue” marks the ninth album release for Son Volt – set to take the stage at the Haw River Ballroom Saturday – it also marks the 20th album to which Farrar has lent his voice and songwriting. It has become commonplace for artists to take multiple-year breaks in between releases, but Farrar’s prodigious output hasn’t wavered, and he continues to find new musical avenues to explore.
“Last year when the reissue of ‘Trace’ (Son Volt’s 1995 debut album) came out, that marked a twenty-year milestone for the band,” Farrar says in a phone interview during a break in the band’s touring. “We went out in support and played those songs on the road as a trio, and after a year and a half of playing acoustic songs, I definitely wanted to get back to playing some electric guitar. That was one idea I wanted to focus on with this album, just to make it more electric.
“Another idea I wanted to focus on was folk singing over a finger-picking style guitar,” he said. “The idea was to just not be complacent, and try to avoid making the same album over and over. Essentially, it was a situation where I was challenged to learn these new tunings, and in the process, I was inspired to take the songwriting in a whole new direction.”
While an easy joke lies in juxtaposing the title of the band’s latest disc with that of Farrar’s first recorded work, Uncle Tupelo’s “No Depression,” the blues cast such a wide shadow of influence over the entirety of music that it is only natural for Farrar to tackle it outright.
“The realization that the blues was such an important part of early country music was the catalyst to focusing more on the blues this time around,” Farrar says. “I’ve always been drawn to blues and listened to it a lot, and recorded a few blues-inspired tunes over the years, but this was a chance to really focus on it fully this time. With Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers being prime examples of icons of early country music who incorporated a lot of blues into their songs, it was really just a realization of exploring those elements found with their music.”
So while this luminary of alt-country is crossing the U.S. on the strengths of both a tour and an album that has his band collecting critical buzz they haven’t seen in years, Farrar warns potential audience members to not expect a stereotypical blues concert. He explains that it is easy to find the light within the darkness of the genre, and hopes that he can help introduce it to new ears.
“I’ve always been drawn to the spiritual aspect of the blues, and I believe that is the message of music in general, and the blues specifically,” the singer says. “I really believe that the blues can lift up your spirits and transcend your current situation.”
Who: Son Volt
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Haw River Ballroom, 1711 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road, Saxapahaw