Born in 1966 in Belleville, IL; married, 1996; children: two. Addresses: Record company--Act/Resist Records, website: http://www.actresistrecords.com. Publicist--Grassroots Media, 800 18th Ave. S., Ste. B, Nashville, TN 37203, website: http://www.grassrootsmedia.com. Booking--Frank Riley, High Road Touring, website: http://www.highroadtouring.com. Website--Jay Farrar Official Website: http://www.jayfarrar.net.
Jay Farrar is perhaps best known for being a member of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, two critically acclaimed roots bands credited with pioneering the alt-country or "No Depression" sound. After Son Volt dissolved, Farrar embarked on a solo career. Julie Borovik, writing for the Nadamucho website in 2003, called Farrar "one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our generation." She contended that Uncle Tupelo "altered music history forever by creating a perfect synergy between rock/blues/country/punk and intertwining it with lyrical wisdom and intelligence far beyond their years."
Farrar started playing the guitar in bands formed by his older brothers when he was 11 or 12. Eventually, he and high school friends Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn formed a rock group called the Primitives, in 1984. This band evolved into Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo toiled on the club scene, finally signing with an independent record label for their debut project, No Depression. "With the fury of punk-influenced guitars mixed with a country feedback twang, Tupelo's songs became popular fixtures on college radio," wrote aRolling Stone contributor.
No Depression birthed a movement and gave it a name. Uncle Tupelo seemed to have come along at just the right time; music writers were impressed with the band's sound and identified No Depression as the inspiration for a host of similar releases. The main elements of their music had existed for decades, simply called by a variety of different names. But in Uncle Tupelo mainstream listeners seemed to find the essence of the rootsy, genre-bending music which has come to be known as variously as the alternative country (or alt-country)--or simply "No Depression." Uncle Tupelo's album also lent its name to a magazine covering this type of music.
The group released four recordings. After a tour undertaken to support Anodyne, according to Rolling Stone, "festering tensions between Farrar and Tweedy had reached critical mass and in June of 1994, Farrar left the band and Uncle Tupelo disbanded." "[W]e basically had reached a point where I did not want to continue doing it anymore and I don't think ... Jeff was at the same stage I was at, at that point," Farrar told Nadamucho in a 2003 interview. "I think we are all better for it, having ended it when we did."
Forged Ahead with Son Volt
With the demise of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar regrouped. Tweedy went on to found Wilco. Heidorn joined Farrar, and Jim and Dave Boquist signed on to the new band known as Son Volt. The group released Trace in 1995 to rave reviews. The album appeard on many critics' year-end "best of" charts, including the Rolling Stone Top 10 list. The magazine noted that the group "continued Tupelo's spirit of moody and rousing ruralism."
Farrar was married in 1996 to his high school sweetheart. For the most part he has kept his family and his personal life out of the entertainment headlines. "Married and the father of two preschool-age daughters, Farrar has always preferred an insular life and intimate music," wrote Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune.
Two other acclaimed albums were released by Son Volt. These were 1997's Straightaways and Wide Swing Tremolo, released in 1998. During its last year and a half, the band stuck to a routine live set drawn from its three releases. They typically played only two Uncle Tupelo songs--"Postcards" and "Chickamauga." In a review of one of their last performances, in 1999 at St. Louis's Mississippi Nights club, No Depression reviewer Roy Kasten opined that "the music couldn't catch fire." He observed that the band's manager had flown in. "The band doesn't want everyone to think of these as their last shows," she told Kasten. Ironically, this was to be the venue where Uncle Tupelo played its last live show. Not content to rest on his laurels after the success of Son Volt, Farrar sought out new creative challenges.
Emerged as Independent Artist
Beginning in 2000, Farrar started giving acoustic performances. He released Sebastopol, his debut solo project, in the fall of 2001. Farrar had help from Steven Drozd, keyboardist of the Flaming Lips, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, and Tom Ray, bassist for the Bottle Rockets. Son Volt went on indefinite hiatus. When pressed in interviews, Farrar has said that Son Volt is in some combination of being on hiatus and having broken up. He has declined to give a straight answer as to whether the group will play together again.
"I always knew that I would try something solo," Farrar told Denver Westword in a January of 2001 interview. "After three Son Volt records, it just felt like the right time to do it. When the band was done touring, when it was over, it seemed like the time for me to try something on my own. I pretty much wanted to try some different textures and use some of the odd instruments I'd collected over the years that didn't really fit into what Son Volt was doing. ... To a certain extent, in Son Volt, I was writing knowing that those three guys would be playing the songs," Farrar said. "Here I was able to sort of write outside of that, write what I wanted to and then fit the musicians to the music."
In 2002 Farrar released ThirdShiftGrottoSlack, a five-track EP, as a follow-up to Sebastopol. Farrar says he did this at the urging of his record label's A&R representative. He told Rolling Stone that the wealth of material he brought to Sebastopol "was more songs than I had written before or attempted to record. It was something of a new concept for me." So some of the songs were diverted to ThirdShiftGrottoSlack. Farrar also said in this interview that there were no immediate plans to revive Son Volt.
Kot noted that throughout his career, "Jay Farrar remains as reliable as the sunrise. His approach is less about innovation than it is immersion; why go searching for new sounds when the one you've already got is so full of possibilities? With each album, he aims to go deeper, not wider. ... His sparse music resonates with reverberating strings, desolate open-tuned guitars and plaintive understatement that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an old Folkways record or an Alan Lomax field recording."
Formed Own Label
Terroir Blues was the second full-length solo album from Farrar and the first on his own Act/Resist label. The label's name combines "two words that I thought I could live with," said Farrar on his website. "It's got the feel of socialist revolt, too. ... Artists get dropped and labels go out of business every day. I want to make sure that there is an outlet for my music."
Consisting of 23 tracks, the largely acoustic Terroir Blues was recorded in 2002 and 2003. The songs were written in the summer of 2002. Farrar had help from Wurster again, as well as from Eric Heywood, who had played pedal steel guitar for Son Volt; Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets, and guitarist Mark Spencer of the Blood Oranges. "Some of the haunted nature of Terroir Blues' songs is rooted in Farrar's recollections and reflections on the life of his father," according to the Act/Resist website. "Farrar's ruminations on his father's death last summer provided some of the impetus for the songs on Terroir Blues."
Rolling Stone reviewed the album, saying that it "should find a middle ground between the rootsy sound Farrar defined with Son Volt and the more experimental sounds of his 2001 solo debut, Sebastopol." And there was continuing interest in the music of the bands Farrar had performed with earlier in his career. The Uncle Tupelo catalog was reissued in 2003 along with a new 21-track anthology, which surprised fans who had thought it would never happen given the gulf of silence between Farrar and Tweedy. Farrar told Denver Westword that it was "kind of weird to go back over the old music. ... I was surprised at sort of the spirit of the music."
by Linda Dailey Paulson
Jay Farrar's Career
Formed the Primitives with high school friends Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn, 1984; band evolved into Uncle Tupelo; recorded four albums before breaking up in 1994; Farrar, Heidorn, and Jim and Dave Boquist formed Son Volt; released Trace, 1995; released Straightaways, 1997; released Wide Swing Tremolo, 1998; Son Volt played final concerts, 1999; Farrar gave solo acoustic performances, 2000; released solo debut recording Sebastopol, 2001; released EP ThirdShiftGrottoSlack, 2002; released Terroir Blues, 2003; Uncle Tupelo catalog and a 21-track anthology reissued, 2003.
- Selected discography
- Sebastopol Fellow Guard/Artemis, 2001.
- ThirdShiftGrottoSlack (EP), Artemis, 2002.
- Terroir Blues Act/Resist/Artemis, 2003.
- With Uncle Tupelo
- No Depression Rockville, 1990; reissued, Columbia/Legacy, 2003.
- Still Feel Gone Rockville, 1991; reissued, Columbia/Legacy, 2003.
- March 16-20, 1992 Rockville, 1992; reissued, Columbia/Legacy, 2003.
- Anodyne Sire/Reprise, 1993; reissued, Rhino, 2003.
- Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology Columbia/Legacy, 2003.
- With Son Volt
- Trace Warner Bros., 1995.
- Straightaways Warner Bros., 1997.
- Wide Swing Tremolo Warner Bros., 1998.
- Chicago Tribune, September 12, 2003.
- No Depression, January-February 2000; November-December 2001.
- "Farrar Sings the Blues," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/printer_friendly.asp?nid=17770&cf=1404649 (October 31, 2003).
- "Jay Farrar," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/default.asp?oid=1404649 (October 31, 2003).
- "Leaving the Son," Denver Westword, http://www.westword.com/issues/2002-1-24/music.html/1/index.html (December 7, 2003).
- "Nadamucho.com: Jay Farrar Interview," Nadamucho, http://www.nadamucho.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=80 (October 31, 2003).
- "New Farrar Songs Surface on EP," RollingStone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/news/printer_friendly.asp?nid=15922&cf=1404649 (October 31, 2003).
- "Son Volt," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/default.asp?oid=388 (October 31, 2003).
- "Son Volt's Rural Rock," Insurgent Country, http://www.insurgentcountry.com/son_volts_rural_rock.txt (December 7, 2003).