‘There’s a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune,” Jay Farrar writes on the smart and evocative new Son Volt album “Honky Tonk,” a work that embraces the band’s early sound as well as that of classic country music.
Farrar hasn’t explored the fiddle and steel guitar vibe so extensively since “Windfall,” the first track on the first Son Volt album, “Trace,” in 1995. It’s a sound that was reinforced for Farrar over the past few years as he sat in with his brother Dade and new Son Volt player Gary Hunt in their St. Louis band Colonel Ford.
Farrar, a Metro East native and co-leader of the groundbreaking alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in the early ’90s, calls the fiddle a “transcendent instrument.”
“I wanted to explore the twin-fiddle sound, which is really something that speaks to me, and which I got to witness first-hand playing around town with Colonel Ford,” Farrar says. “It’s a powerful sound; it draws you in. There’s a natural chorus effect on the fiddle. The pitch is just a little bit off, and it’s an intriguing sound.”
In 1954, a young surfer-musician walked up to guitar maker Leo Fender and said, “Hello, my name is Dick Dale, I got no money, can you help me out?”
Simple question, and one that Fender answered by allowing Dale to play one of the first Fender Stratocasters.
“I picked it up and I held it upside-down and backwards and I was playing it, and Leo fell off the chair laughing,” Dale says. “He says, ‘How come you’re playing it that way?’ And I say, ‘When I got my first ukulele, I held it that way because I was strumming with my left hand, and the book didn’t say, ‘Turn it the other way, stupid,’ and it’s been that way ever since.”
That encounter began an association that arguably led to hard rock, heavy metal and amps turned up to 11. Dale pushed Fender to create the amplifier electronics and heavy-duty speakers that would let Dale play louder and louder, chasing the swing-era sound of Gene Krupa’s drums that Dale wanted to hear coming from his guitar. There’s a reason why one of Dale’s compilation albums is titled “Better Shred Than Dead.”
Dave Alvin has become one of America’s greatest songwriters and guitar players. His early work with the punk-fueled R&B/rockabilly band the Blasters has matured into an adventurous exploration of American roots music encompassing folk, country and the blues.
His story and love songs are rooted in real people, ordinary working people facing personal and societal challenges yet somehow hanging on to a sliver of hope. Among his best: “Fourth of July,” “King of California,” “Ashgrove” and the new “Gary, Indiana 1959,” plus exquisite co-writes with Tom Russell on “Haley’s Comet,” “California Snow” and “Out in California.”
I interviewed Alvin for a Post-Dispatch story on June 14, 2011. I reached him on a tour stop in Asheville, N.C., about 11 o’clock in the morning — early for a working musician — and he apologized for not being totally awake. Here is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.
We began by talking about Chris Gaffney, a fine singer-songwriter and accordion player and Alvin’s best friend who died of liver cancer at age 57 on April 17, 2008. Gaffney recorded with his own band as well as the great Hacienda Brothers, and he was a member of Alvin’s Guilty Men.
I told Dave I bought my first Gaffney album, “Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts,” in 1989 based only on the title and band name and became a fan instantly. I talked to Gaffney a couple of times at Alvin shows, and enjoyed the conversations.
Gaffney’s death hit Alvin hard.
DA: I could go on for hours. He was my best friend. He got all my jokes.
BG: Yeah, that is the mark of a best friend, isn’t it.
DA: That is the mark of a best friend (laughing).
BG: And if they don’t, they just pretend they do.
DA: He never pretended. He would let me know, on a scale of 1 to 10, how good the jokes were.
BG: “Two Lucky Bums” (on “Eleven Eleven”) of course is a duet with Chris. You had originally offered that as a download. And it’s that version I assume that’s on the CD.
DA: Yeah. I cut a couple of other songs for the record, and when I was piecing things together it kind of made sense to put it on and hold a couple of other things. … That just kind of summed everything up.
BG: There is a subtext of mortality on the new CD. Is that the influence of Chris’ passing, or is it bigger than that?
This blog is intended as a place for fans of roots music — country, alt-country, roots rock, blues etc — to get together and discuss and critique our favorite music. I’ve been writing about music for many years for mainstream newspapers, and I’m looking forward to freeing my inner fan.
For the past 10 years, I have worked as a copy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing about music for the Everyday, Get Out and A&E sections: CD and concert reviews, concert previews, artist profiles, and Best Bets and Critic’s Picks. A link to those stories can be found on the Story Library page of this blog, or here.
Future posts will consist of original stories and reviews, as well as stories published by the Post-Dispatch, with links to the newspaper’s website, STLtoday.com.
I’ll also pass on links to other websites, blogs and music-releated places that catch my eye.