Son Volt “Steeling” Attention for Energetic Honky Tonk

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Son Volt’s buoyant new album Honky Tonk rattles and rolls with endless energy. The St. Louis-based band supports its old-school country collection on April 19 at Old Settler’s Music Festival near Austin.

Bandleader Jay Farrar looks forward to revisiting a familiar haunt.

“I like the weather and then the barbecue and the overall energy that you feel by being in Austin,” Farrar says. “It’s something special — the fact that there’s probably more musicians there than anywhere else on the planet.”

CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.

Farrar: I became immersed in listening to classic country music through the process of learning to play the pedal steel guitar. I started playing out with a local band in St. Louis called Colonel Ford. As part of that, I really checked out a lot of Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens recordings where Ralph Mooney was the pedal steel player. My brain was saturated with all this early 1950s and early 1960s music when it came time to write these songs for the Son Volt record.

You learned the steel but didn’t play on the record. Why not?

I did not. I brought in help. Brad Sarno and Mark Spencer played pedal steel on the recording. I’d prefer to do it in a different setting. Coming off [Son Volt’s 2009 album] American Central Dust, where we did a lot of live band recording in the studio, this time we went for a different approach, more of a skeleton crew of Mark Spencer doing the recording duties and also playing bass and pedal steel and keyboards and Dave Bryson on drums.

Did a common lyrical theme emerge as you were writing?

I sort of embraced the heartache and heartbreak lexicon of that time period and ran with it. You know, I think some of the songs deal with the quixotic nature of love and the expectation that it must be perfect, while the reality is that love is imperfect and must be tweaked. But there was this whole culture of commiseration in country music in that time period, singing about heartbreak.

There’s definitely a contagious energy that can be found within it. When you’re listening, there’s such a convergence of new technology in terms of recording technology and, for instance, in terms of the pedal steel. Each year, somebody would add something or modify it to try to get the new sound. It was an interesting experience, diving into it the way I did.

Tell the story behind writing “Hearts and Minds.”

We gave it the regular honky-tonk aesthetic approach, but going into the recording, I wanted to pay homage to honky-tonk music yet not feel limited by its parameters. “Hearts and Minds” was a case where it just wasn’t really working within those parameters, so we tried something different and gave it a more sped up Cajun waltz feel. It just really seemed to click after we put the twin fiddles on.

What makes the fiddle sound transcendent to you?

I’ve been at pubs before where there’s like this one guy there playing a fiddle. It sounds transcendent to me because it transports you back a couple hundred years. The one thing that I really wanted to explore on this record was the idea of twin fiddles. There’s power in numbers, and there’s an interesting sound that’s created — kind of a chorus effect — when you put two together.

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