"Honky-tonk" is a noun, a verb, a place, a genre and a way of life. To go "honky-tonkin'" is to leave behind one world — the drab, demanding and workaday — and to two-step into another. That other world is a little dangerous, a lot musical, and, above all else, it is alive.
Honky Tonk is also the name of the new album by Son Volt, the band formed and helmed by Jay Farrar, a 46-year-old father of two and, according to some, the father of something called "alt-country." But with this album, the seventh for his band, the prefix is nearly but not quite gone; twin fiddles, pedal steel, waltzes and shuffling rhythms have taken its place. It's truly the first Son Volt album you can dance to, start to finish.
The album opens with "Hearts and Minds," a Cajun-spiced waltz driven by the fiddles of fellow St. Louisians Gary Hunt and Justin Branum, compatriots of the local honky-tonk band Colonel Ford. In that veteran group, Farrar plays pedal steel; for Honky Tonk he lets two maestros, Mark Spencer and Brad Sarno, do the sliding.
"I wanted to focus on that pedal steel and fiddle aesthetic and expand on that by bringing in the twin fiddles," Farrar says over coffee and soup at SqWires Restaurant. "It's an intriguing sound. There's a natural chorus effect; fiddles don't have frets. You can hook them up to a tuner, but the two fiddle players, even if they're playing the same note, the pitch is going to be different. The sound of one fiddle alone can transport you back in time, but the sound of two is even better. That's probably what I was getting at in the lyrics to the song 'Down the Highway'."
There's a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune
Throw this love down the highway
See where it takes you
On Honky Tonk, Farrar focuses on his tunes, his rhythm-guitar playing and his singing — the most supple and rich with country intonation of his career — and his songwriting, which is somehow more elemental and yet just as evocative as ever. The opening lines of the record offer enough proof:
We tried to guide each day through life
Hearts were tried but always true
Shifting fate left us to realize
There's nothing more we can do
For those who know Farrar's songwriting the style and the associations, the layered and opened meanings will be familiar and rewarding: The independence of spirit and heart tends to buck against fate and time, which always have other plans. The fight with fate goes on; see where it takes you — and that's the deal with life, with music and with art. And somehow Farrar fuses his themes with an utterly classic honky-tonk sound.
"I wanted to acknowledge and to pay homage to what I consider important, the Bakersfield guys, Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens, but also George Jones and Ray Price," he says. "That's the kind of music I've always turned to, especially when touring, for inspiration. That music has always been important to Son Volt, from the first song on the first record, but with this record I really wanted to focus on that."
So while Honky Tonk is the most traditional country album Farrar and Son Volt have ever made, that move is far from a conservative retreat. Rock & roll, and blues for that matter, still run through Farrar's visions, and in the risk inherent in making a record that is so purely, richly, deeply country. For Farrar, "honky-tonk" is simply a sound he loves from a moment in time when tradition and innovation converged — and the sparks flew.
"The association I have with the term honky-tonk encompasses everything from the country music of the '40s," explains Farrar, "When bands started using amplification and electric instruments so the sound could be louder than the crowd. Hank Williams was emblematic of that. All through the 1950s is when it really started taking shape. There was an interesting convergence of technology in the early 1950s. The pedal steel was being modified, and they were starting to bend strings, and recording technology was improving and being modified year by year. That's also how I view honky-tonk: Instrument technology met a good place for recording technology, culminating in the Buck Owens recordings in the 1960s."
Part of the story of Honky Tonk stretches back to Farrar's youth, his early exposure to country music through his parents and his three older brothers. A few weeks after the release of Honky Tonk, Farrar will publish his first book, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs, a "memoir" as his publisher Soft Skull Press calls it, though the term feels a bit stuffy for Farrar's style. The book vaults across time and place, much like Bob Dylan's Chronicles, and its eleven chapters, each with multiple portraits, in words and photographs (shot beautifully in black and white by Farrar), give an honest (sometimes mercilessly honest), poignant and often humorous glimpse into who he is and where he comes from.
Much of the book focuses on his father, Jim "Pops" Farrar, and on his musical discoveries — the lessons learned, whether he was ready for them or not.
"I didn't think the best approach would be to go with a traditional, linear autobiography," Farrar says. "My life isn't that interesting, for one. I wanted to focus on specific experiences that were unique to my life that maybe didn't happen to anyone else. If it's impressionistic along the way, that's fine too. When I sat down to write, it was cognitive medicine, making sense of the past, and the over-arching subject matter often came back to my father, his influence and encouragement to get involved in music. Not to leave my mother out of that; she did a lot of the nuts and bolts work of teaching."
Farrar has learned his lessons well, be they as a storyteller or a musician. You'd be hard pressed to name another rock artist or rock band that could make country music as gorgeous and genuine as Farrar and Son Volt have made on Honky Tonk.
"As I started writing the songs, I wanted to dive into the honky-tonk aesthetic," Farrar says, "but I didn't want to be limited by the parameters of that sound. The first song is more Cajun; the song 'Livin' On' is more reminiscent of Solomon Burke than Merle Haggard. Sometimes the songs would want to go in a different direction, but they'd still fall under this umbrella of elemental American music.
"I think having a clearer aesthetic and thematic focus, knowing that this is going to have a heartbreak-style lyrical content, and working within that framework and that lexicon, it allowed the songwriting to flow, perhaps, more easily than some of the other records I've done. There was less being self-analytical about any of it. It's honky-tonk."