Son Volt: kicking up "American Central Dust" 

The legacy of Uncle Tupelo will follow Jay Farrar for the rest of his musical career, trailing behind his band Son Volt as they tour in support of their sixth studio album, American Central Dust. Farrar continues to play music that's far closer to the proto-alt-country sound and feel of Uncle Tupelo than any offshoot of the Belleville, Ill., band that broke up in 1994, including former bandmate Jeff Tweedy's Wilco.

Farrar, on the phone from St. Louis as the band gears up for a three-day early August Midwest trip, is simultaneously understated and forthcoming. During our conversation, Farrar stops to ask what venue they are playing when the band comes to Indianapolis. I tell him it'll be the Vogue.

"Oh, yeah. Good," he says, after a long breath.

I ask what comes to mind when he thinks of Indianapolis. He tells a story I knew but had forgotten.

"In the early days of Uncle Tupelo touring, our van broke down once in Indianapolis. Brian Henneman [of the Bottle Rockets] was our guitar tech at the time and immortalized that experience in one of his songs, called Indianapolis."

I found the lyrics on the Web. Here are the first four lines of the infectious, mid-tempo country rock tune:

Got a tow, from a guy named Joe,

Cost sixty dollars, hope I don't run outta dough.

Told me 'bout a sex offense put him three days in jail,

Stuck in Indianapolis, hope I live to tell the tale.

Luckily, they all did.

Son Volt's new album came out July 7, The Bottle Rockets' new album Lean Forward is set for Aug. 11 and Tweedy's latest incarnation of Wilco released a self-titled record this summer.

Some writers have noted that the new Son Volt release echoes the sound of the band's 1995 debut record Drown, although the band's lineup has -- with the exception of Farrar -- completely turned over in the interim. And Farrar's writing is more accessible, even more populist, on American Central Dust than Trace. In a change from his past efforts, Farrar played more acoustic than electric guitar for the new album. That slightly muted approach foregrounds Farrar's lyrics, which are filled with pithy, cutting lines like "love is a fog and you stumble every step you take," from the album's "Dust to Daylight."

"I felt like the best way to make this a focused, cohesive record was to play acoustic guitar," Farrar says. "There are also two soloists -- Mark Spencer on pedal steel and Chris Masterson on electric -- so that is a different approach for Son Volt."

Farrar explains that he's compelled to place an "emphasis to a more familiar aesthetic, especially with the pedal steel guitar. Having that instrument is where it's at for me," he says. "I'm actually trying to learn how to play myself. I have more of a starter version with two little palm levers, to bend the pitch, so it is actually a lap steel with string benders. Mark was a lap steel player prior to recording this record, so he pretty much woodshedded to bring the pedal steel to the forefront."

The album was also inspired by Farrar's hobbies -- he and the band started listening to Mexican radio when touring the Southwest last year.

"It is sort of cleansing and cathartic to hear something different. We were trying to dissect the music and instrumentation and the way these guys were playing. It just kind of blew our mind," he recounts.

Still, as is typical for Farrar's work and as the album title would suggest, American Dust Central focuses on the downtrodden but hopeful people of Middle America,

"I always try to find words that are recurring in songs that are representative," he says of the album title. "I pulled three words from three songs. I feel that is always the best way to come up with a title that's most representative of all the songs, as opposed to the last record [2007's The Search] where I pulled a song title as the album title.

The music rides along at a languid pace consistent with telling stories of heartbreak, but Farrar says it's not a pessimistic album on the whole.

"Someone described it as dire optimism," he says about the record. "In my interpretation, it is optimism more than anything else. It was written in summer of 2008, so it just felt like the country was breathing a little easier and headed in a little different direction; at least that's the way I was looking at it when these songs were written."

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Rob Nichols

Rob Nichols

A music writer for more than 30 years, Rob began as a rock radio jock at age 17. Born in central Indiana, Rob moved north and spent his college years in Hillsdale, Michigan. That meant traveling to Detroit for all the good rock shows, and explains his affinity for Seger, the J. Geils Band, and Mitch Ryder. He's... more

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