A few years ago, Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar was preparing the twentieth-anniversary edition of the band's 1995 debut album, Trace. The album cover was a photo of a 1930s Webster Chicago solid-state amplifier. Farrar dug up the amp, which inspired him to put down his acoustic guitar and go electric on the group's latest release, Notes of Blue.
For some of the album's grittier cuts, Farrar fired up the old amp, creating a sound at the intersection of country, blues and folk, he says.
There are some alt-country gems on the disc that are entirely in the Son Volt wheelhouse, which makes sense, as Farrar and Jeff Tweedy (who went on to form Wilco) helped usher in the genre with their band Uncle Tupelo, which broke up in 1994. But it’s the songs that are steeped in the blues on Notes of Blue that pack the most punch.
Farrar says Notes of Blue was a chance to dig deep into the music of blues masters Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell and their alternate guitar tunings.
“I wanted to go into that unfamiliar territory this time around and try not to be complacent and make another country record,” Farrar says. “But I was hoping this would [go] in a different direction than the previous Son Volt record.”
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Part of the reason that Farrar wanted delve into the blues was “just because, ultimately, it’s a foundation of a part of country music.” And although Son Volt’s last album, 2013’s Honky Tonk, was drenched in country, Farrar still sees a correlation between the two discs.
“Guys like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, they were heavily steeped in blues,” Farrar says. “I see Honky Tonk and Notes of Blue as counterparts, in a way.”
When writing songs for Notes of Blue, Farrar says, using alternate guitar tunings really opened up the creative process.
“When you’re learning a new guitar tuning, it’s essentially learning the instrument again, because you’re learning new chord configurations,” he says. “It’s a new guitar voicing, it sounds different, so it’s great, because you’re inspired in a way like you were when you first picked up the guitar and started to play.
“Over the years, I’ve worked with new tunings that I’ve come up with myself or, in other cases, where it’s actually doing some research and figuring out what guys I would consider icons had been using. So it’s just a way to connect.”
While looking to James and McDowell for both alternate tunings and fingerpicking styles, Farrar also researched the techniques of English singer-songwriter Nick Drake.
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“It seems incongruous on the surface, but I found that there were threads of commonality both in terms of the fingerpicking method and just the fact that they used alternate tunings — but ultimately, it’s all folk music, whether it’s English folk guys or American blues guys,” he says.
Farrar used Drake’s “Pink Moon” tuning on Notes of Blue’s gorgeous opener, “Promise the World,” which he says is probably the first song he’s ever used a mantra in (“light after darkness, that is the way”).
“I think it was just kind of writing another song to embrace, I guess, in terms of using it as a shield against adversity or something with that mantra,” he says.