As Jay Farrar readies a new Son Volt album with a fresh cast of characters, he is taking a moment to look back, helping to compile a Rhino Records anthology for release May 24th. Alongside the band's classic album cuts, the two-CD set features demos and rarities.
"I was thinking about artists I like, whether it's Bob Dylan or R.L. Burnside, and all the unreleased stuff they've put out there," Farrar says, "and it motivated me to dig through the vault a bit."
Among the highlights is Son Volt's version of Woody Guthrie's anti-war song "I've Got to Know," which Farrar first heard over the end credits of the movie Bob Roberts. "I think it's more relevant today than when it was written," he says. Other covers include Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night" and Del Reeves' trucker anthem, "Looking at the World Through a Windshield."
The band released three strong albums on Warner Bros. in the Nineties, but by 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo Farrar was getting restless. "We'd been recording and touring pretty steadily for about five years," he says. "At that point my first son was born, and I wanted to get to know my family again. It also coincided with me wanting to try some different things in the studio."
Farrar embarked on a solo career in 2001, but it wasn't long before he began longing for a group dynamic again. "I've enjoyed [playing solo] immensely, but I think you start to miss the whole band approach," he admits. "So I started inching my way back towards that."
Last year, Farrar hooked up with the original Son Volt lineup -- multi-instrumentalist Dave Boquist, bassist Jim Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn -- to record a song for Por Vida, a benefit record for Texas songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. "At that point, it seemed like we could take it further, like we were on the same page, musically," says Farrar. "But when it came time to sit down and sort it out, it didn't work. We'd changed a lot over the years. I was calling them all from the studio, and they refused to come by and set up. They just wanted to communicate through their lawyers. I was devastated."
Farrar decided to soldier on, drafting guitarist Brad Rice, bassist Andrew Duplantis, drummer Dave Bryson and steel guitar player Eric Heywood for a new incarnation of the band. Together, they've recorded enough tracks for a new album and are currently firming up a label deal and release date. "I'm just looking forward to getting back to more up-tempo, melodic rock stuff," says Farrar. "Son Volt has always represented a certain type of spirit in my songwriting -- what four people could do just playing their instruments and trying to capture the live essence of that."
And as for the future, Farrar says, "I'm not going away any time soon. We all hope to be the last man standing, right?"