When someone is in disagreement with something they have a choice; they can act or stay silent. At a time when society and the government continuously churn out tumultuous headlines Jay Farrar and his band Son Volt have decided to speak out. Their latest release Union has songs ripped directly from current events. They will be appearing at the Heights Theater June 21.
“Basically the political situation of 2016 was the catalyst and then I was inspired to write about things I was reading about.” says Farrar. “Part of what the end point was supposed to be with writing some of these songs is sort of acknowledging that divisiveness.”
The cover itself contains simple images with a heavy representation; a door, the American flag and a typewriter. “I took that photo maybe five years ago or so and I held onto it. When this record was needing a cover, I thought that would be emblematic of a lot of the song content."
He continues, "The idea of trying to find a common purpose of putting people together and the typewriter reflects the broadside writing about headlines type inspiration that goes along with this recording.”
Union explores the current political climate and what we could all do, no matter what side you might fall on, to help the world come together. The album has topical tracks which tackle issues like the 99 percent, unions and immigration.
“The Symbol” is a modern day take on Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”, telling the story of an immigrant named Juan who despite helping to rebuild after Katrina and being in the country for a decade faces being called a criminal and frequent reminders that he does not belong here in the eyes of some.
“Reality Winner” is constantly being compared to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” for its intent to bring awareness to a real person’s incarceration. “She’s basically a whistle blower that’s serving hard time because she leaked a single document that told us there was Russian interference in the 2016 elections and we were being told there was none.” says Farrar.
It is chilling to think that someone lost all her freedom for trying to share the truth and serve her country and a majority of the population isn’t even familiar with her case. “The least I could do is write a song to let others know who might not know.” says Farrar.
The album isn’t all politics and protests, “I also tried to find a balance probably midway through the writing of this batch of songs. I realized I had been taking a lot of songs from the headlines and then I realized that there needs to be some other songs to balance out and make it a stronger record.”
Farrar and his band even took some of these songs out of the studio to give them new life and more dimension. They recorded tracks at the Woody Guthrie Center and the Mother Jones Museum, fitting locations for the song content as both individuals were pioneers in the fight for workers' rights.
“I did find inspiration along the way in those environments and I think we accomplished what we set out to do at least in regards to trying something different and hoping that it would inspire along the way.” says Farrar.
During times of turmoil artists and their creations can serve to bring light to injustice or distract audiences with beauty. “Well I guess based on the approach that I took with the writing on this record, I have one foot in both camps. I definitely grew up in an environment around Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and I’m grateful that they included some topical songwriting in what they did. I think it does make a difference, I’m not sure that what I've done will, but I'm glad that they did it. It made a difference for me.” says Farrar.
He adds, “This was just my attempt to try to make sense of it and maybe add to the discussion but certainly if people can be brought together in any way shape or form that's a good thing. We will get there, things have actually been worse before.”
When asked if he feared turning off any fans with political songs he says, “I think people that follow my music at this point know where I'm coming from; I was writing about Reagan's trickle down theory back in 1992.”
Farrar and his old band mate Jeff Tweedy are often credited with kick-starting the alternative country scene with their band Uncle Tupelo. Their socially conscious songs drew influence not only from classic country and Americana but also from punk rock.
When discussing the common yet not so obvious link between punk rock and folk Farrar says, “They are sort of on parallel paths and certainly folk music influenced punk music. Over all I think there is a shared ethos there, I think protest music can go hand in hand with either.”
Though many people look to Farrar and his past work as mile markers for a genre, Farrar himself doesn’t always explore new artists or even identify himself with the movement. “That genre is not necessarily what I turn to for inspiration because I have so much more going back to old blues and old country that I haven't heard yet so I turn to that for inspiration.”
He adds, “There is a lot of good stuff going on out there, and maybe I’m not the best person to talk to about what's new and what's good, but I do get the sense that it’s there.”
Son Volt will be performing with Old Salt Union, Friday June 21 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. Doors open at 7 p.m. $28.