In the twenty years since Uncle Tupelo disbanded, Jay Farrar has seen his former bandmates, Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt, achieve far greater fame with Wilco than Jay has found with Son Volt. When their collaborative paths diverged, Farrar continued to embrace the alt-country sound Uncle Tupelo defined in the early ‘90s while Wilco steered away from it almost entirely and traveled on an indie radio-friendly highway. Jay Farrar took Son Volt down dusty roads, keeping the band firmly rooted in the Americana genre. Many highways and cigarettes later, Son Volt has returned with their seventh full-length release, Honky Tonk, a more straightforward album that strips away the denim jacket of the alt-country mantle and digs deep into the organic roots of their sound. Rich with the strains of pedal steel guitars and fiddles, Honky Tonk carries them further back to the once-popular paths of the Bakersfield sound trailblazed a half-century ago by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. As if taking a cue from Owens to “act naturally,” Farrar lets his understated vocals shine in this album that deals with the universal themes of love, heartbreak, and resilient determination to weather life’s storms.
Honky Tonk at times sounds like something straight out of early ‘60s-era A.M. radio; you can easily envision couples slow-dancing in cowboy boots to “Angel of the Blues” or “Seawall” on a dance floor bathed in hazy light from flickering neon signs. But while this album has its fair share of typical country song topics, it’s not a collection of “crying in my beer ‘cause my baby left me” songs. These aren’t drinking songs; they’re thinking songs – the kind you listen to with a clear head and a hopeful heart. The songs tell stories of dark clouds and open spaces, of brick walls encountered and distances yet untraveled. Farrar is no stranger to looking at the landscape of the heart through windshields. This album straddles the line between viewing the miles long gone in the rearview mirror while keeping focus on the road ahead without losing traction.
“Throw this love down the highway / see where it takes you,” he urges in “Down the Highway,” a sentiment echoed in “Tears of Change” when he sings, “To believe in this love is to travel / To the reaches and beyond without fear.” The stripped-down beauty of each song is enhanced by the melancholy strings of St. Louis-based champion fiddler and mandolinist Justin Branum. The addition of Mark Spencer’s pedal steel guitar creates a gentle harmonic balance that makes you want to have a good cry then hit the road in search of new adventures. The album pulls at the heart strings, especially on the penultimate track, “Barricades,” where Farrar is at his optimistic best: “When the world is not what it seems / On the outside lookin’ in on a dream / Don’t let the barricades of life keep the wild spirit still / It makes no difference what others say and do / The path goes on, showing the way for you / The sign says: ‘Redemption Ahead’ straight on through.”