Since being formed by Uncle Tupelo’s Jay Farrar in 1994, Son Volt has been a stalwart band on the alt-country scene. The group’s 1995 debut album, Trace, remains a landmark recording in the genre. In February of this year, Son Volt released the 11-track collection Notes of Blue. Though not a traditional blues album as such, Notes of Blue finds vocalist/guitarist Farrar using blues-inspired guitar tunings across the album. On Thursday, March 9, Son Volt will return to Birmingham for a performance at WorkPlay. Recently, Farrar spoke to Weld about the new album and the inspirations that formed its basis.
Weld: Your touring this year is made up of several short trips. It seems like you’ve found a manageable way to tour.
Jay Farrar: Yeah, absolutely. I try to find the right balance of being out on the road and still having time to see my family. I think I did manage to miss everyone’s birthday in this leg coming up. All musicians run a deficit, it seems like, with regard to family but that’s the life.
Weld: Tell us a little bit about the origins of Notes of Blue.
Farrar: Over the course of the last two years, I started thinking about some alternate [guitar] tunings that held a mystique for me, so I wanted to explore them and see what was there. The tuning of Skip James was one and the tuning of Fred McDowell was another and the English Folk guy, Nick Drake. I wanted to focus on that common thread of all those guys. All those guys used alternate tunings, but they also used fingerpicking-style guitar. On the flipside of that, I wanted to focus more on playing electric guitar, so that meant pulling out an old amplifier that I used on the first Son Volt record, Trace. It’s called a Webster Chicago.
Weld: Did the alternate tunings affect your songwriting approach?
Farrar: The tunings do determine where things are headed. The alternate tunings really determine the melodic structure and the result of where the melody ends up because it’s a different guitar voicing, and it’s so much different than standard tuning. But that’s the upside, because it’s all new territory for the most part. The idea was to try not to be complacent and make the same record that Son Volt had made for the previous record. This time I took it as a challenge to learn these tunings and take things in a different direction.
Weld: The new album is not a traditional blues album, but the press release states that you were mindful of the common ground that blues shares with many forms of music as you were writing for the album.
Farrar: I’ve always been inspired by that spiritual aspect of the blues and the realization that blues was such an important part of early country music. That was really the catalyst. I’ve always listened to blues and done some blues-oriented songs, but this was my opportunity to focus on it a bit more.
Weld: Now that Son Volt has existed for more than 20 years and has amassed a large catalog of songs, how have you approached the set lists for this tour?
Farrar: So far, the set list is comprised of songs that are representative of the whole catalog. There are a few albums that get passed over, I think, but for the most part there’s a song played from most of the records in the catalog. We made an effort to try to do that because some of the songs I really haven’t done for a while, so I thought it would be good to dust some of those old songs off and bring them out.
Weld: Are you writing new songs now?
Farrar: Touring tends to put writing on the back burner a bit. It allows for an opportunity to gather some ideas, but everything’s a little too frenetic on tour to get a whole lot of woodshedding done. I have been writing a handful of songs and I hope to get them together by summer.
Son Volt will perform at WorkPlay on Thursday, March 9. Johnny Irion will open. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $22 and can be purchased at workplay.com.