Since Jay Farrar reactivated Son Volt nearly a half-decade ago, he's wasted no time adding to the band's influential legacy. Its third studio album in the last four years (and sixth overall), American Central Dust, was recorded to analog tape at Farrar's St. Louis studio/rehearsal space last October. (Finishing touches were added in Brooklyn, New York.) Dust is more stripped-down and slower than 2007's The Search, but it's just as nuanced: The warm, welcoming record incorporates curls of pedal-steel, wistful strings and plenty of Farrar's songwriting trademarks. "When the Wheels Don't Move" features stormy guitar dust clouds and a soft bed of keyboards; "Cocaine and Ashes" is a mournful, piano-dominated ballad with keening harmonies and strings; and "Jukebox of Steel" and "Strength and Doubt" are driving, propulsive songs that long-time Son Volt fans should embrace.
Dust's lyrics are also notable for their multiple nods to regional history. The piano-and-string-driven highlight "Sultana" is a matter-of-fact retelling about the little-known 1865 maritime disaster near Memphis. "Down to the Wire" mentions waking up to the "Biddle Street blues," a reference to the Henry Spaulding-penned (and Henry Townsend-covered) song and the street that was the hub for St. Louis blues in the '20s. And then there's "Pushed Too Far," which says: "Bennie for blues and James for barrelhouse/The brown-eyed handsome man is still around" — in other words, late blues men Bennie Smith and James Crutchfield, and rock legend Chuck Berry, respectively.
On a recent morning, as Farrar and the rest of Son Volt were rehearsing for their upcoming tour, he took time for a phone conversation about Dust.
Annie Zaleski: I liked the St. Louis influences and references on the record. "Pushed Too Far" namechecks Bennie Smith, Chuck Berry and Snooks [Eaglin] from New Orleans.
Jay Farrar: James Crutchfield, I used to go see him at a bar — I think it was called 9th and Allen — down in Soulard. It was better seeing him in the days, you know, when I had a fake ID, getting in the clubs. Later on, again [I remember] going to see Bennie Smith down at the Venice Café. When I lived in New Orleans briefly, there was a place called the Rock 'N' Bowl, where Snooks Eaglin would play. I hope I got the day [he played] right [in the song's lyrics]. [Laughs] It could have been Tuesday, not Wednesday.
The song about Sultana — I had to look it up, I didn't know much about it. Where did you learn about that?
My father worked on the Mississippi River for several decades, so I grew up around a lot of the lore and legends of the river. Even sometimes if you go over to Bellerive Park in south St. Louis, when the river's low, on occasion you can see some debris of what appears to be old shipwrecks or something poking out of the sandbar. That sort of stoked my imagination to find out if there were any real historical incidents of shipwrecks around St. Louis. I did not really find that, but I know that [engineer James] Eads made his livelihood recovering cargo from shipwrecks. Throughout the process of that, I came across the Sultana incident. That struck me as a sadly powerful name, as well as the fact that it was kind of buried in history — even though it was the worst nautical disaster in history.
I also like "Cocaine and Ashes," which I read was inspired by Keith Richards supposedly snorting the ashes of his father.
Years ago, Uncle Tupelo recorded at a place called Long View Farm in Massachusetts. And the Rolling Stones had used that studio as a rehearsal studio for getting ready for one of their tours in the '80s. There was a bootleg tape that Keith had made while he was there, of just [him] playing the piano. After having heard Keith playing piano just by himself, it inspired me to learn how to play piano a little bit better — at least to a point where I could record and write songs on piano. I guess in a way, "Cocaine and Ashes" is my tribute to Keith. It just struck me as an honest thing for him to say, that's what he did, that was his way to pay tribute to his father, mixing cocaine and his father's ashes.
"When the Wheels Don't Move" stood out to me too. I just bought the reissue of R.E.M.'s Reckoning, and the song reminded me of "Little America" — from an older, jaded perspective.
[Dryly] If what you're saying that it doesn't sound like the 1980s, I guess that's good, in my estimation. I was probably in more of a Neil Young vein as far as the guitar tuning I was using, and the repetitive chord progressions. Lyrically, it was thinking about our society's reliance on fossil fuels and the whole economic structure that's built on that. The fact that musicians especially are...at the time when gas was hitting $5 a gallon, Son Volt was on tour, and it didn't completely wreck our tour, but I imagine that a lot of bands getting started out that it would. That's what I was thinking about.
"Jukebox of Steel"...there's something solid and timeless about that phrase.
Being a musician on the road, you're always sampling some of the local bars and taverns. More often than not, you find a place that has good old country music on it, even though finding good country music is kind of a sport. There's a lot of questionable stuff out there, from artists I consider great. They really put out some novelty songs and stuff that are hard to handle.
I remember the first time I went to a Waffle House, seeing their jukebox. They had all their Waffle House country things.
I've even memorized some of the artists. [Laughs] Billy Dee Cox, I think, is one of the guys, and his big song is called "Special Lady." "Working at the Waffle House..." [Laughs]
I smell a B-side...
I've thought about it. [Laughs] Never got beyond thinking about it. Maybe someday.
[Death Cab for Cutie vocalist/lyricist] Ben Gibbard was in town last year working with you on some music. Has any of that seen the light of day?
It's in the works. I did work with Ben on this recording project, which started out as each of us contributing songs to a documentary about Jack Kerouac. We both wound up in the studio together, just sort of decided to take a step further and record a whole batch of songs. It's kind of evolved into a real project. I guess there aren't a whole lot of details about it yet, but it's in the works, and it could possibly come out in the fall, like around October — which I think is a Jack Kerouac anniversary of sorts....It was a great experience working with Ben. I guess because there wasn't a whole lot of planning that went into the process, I think we both really got a lot from the experience.