How the Blues Shaped Son Volt's Electrified 'Notes of Blue'

Foundational alt-country band led by Jay Farrar looks to Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell on eighth full-length

Son Volt's Jay Farrar talks about the blues inspirations for the band's new album 'Notes of Blue.' Credit: Courtesy of All Eyes Media

"The title is obviously a nod to the blues, which ended up becoming the framework of this entire record," states singer-guitarist Jay Farrar about Son Volt's adventurous new album Notes of Blue. "Over the years I've done a couple blues-oriented songs here and there, but this time around there was an opportunity to focus a bit more on it all the way through." Finding its aesthetic anchor in the storied blues tradition, Notes of Blue is the eighth studio album from Farrar's Son Volt, a band who often works to widen the fence posts of the alt-country genre it is often credited with helping establish.

To facilitate that fresh approach this time around, Farrar found inspiration in a few seemingly dissimilar yet sonically complementary sources, most notably the work of two iconic bluesmen, as well as the moody acoustic folk ballads of English songwriter Nick Drake. "I've always been drawn to the tunings of Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell," Farrar tells Rolling Stone Country. "When you use alternate tunings, it requires different chord voicings and it sounds completely different from what you normally hear on guitars in standard tunings. It brings up a lot of different creative options."

By breaking down how both men approached the genre, Farrar was able to hone in on exactly what he wanted to emulate throughout his own songwriting on Notes of Blue. He found inspiration in the haunting minor key tunings of James and in the acoustic slide-guitar work of McDowell. More than just a creative exercise, it turned out to be an enriching musical education for Farrar. "In studying them both, I got to be a student learning the tools of the trade from these classic blues heroes.

"Nick Drake may seem to stand in contrast to those guys," Farrar continues, "but ultimately they all shared a similar aesthetic in terms of using a lot of finger-picking style guitar, which is one of the main areas I wanted to focus on with this album." Farrar points to Notes of Blue album opener "Promise the World" as an example of Drake's influence, citing that it shares the same alternate tuning as Drake's signature song "Pink Moon" from 1972. Echoes of Drake can be found in the song's melancholy lyrical slant as well. "Everyone goes through a dark period and the message of the blues is that music can lift you up. It transcends your mood and your surroundings. That's what I'm trying to do with 'Promise the World.' The song that follows it, 'Back Against the Wall,' is intended to be a rally song. It's more overtly uplifting and is about taking on adversity and being a shield against challenges on the horizon. They worked out as a nice yin and yang with each other to kick off the album."

"I wake up everyday, read the news, and then ask myself, 'What would Woody Guthrie say about these current times'"

Alongside the distinctive influences of James, McDowell and Drake, Farrar also highlights the creative motivation that artists like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie had on his songwriting for Notes of Blue. "Blues is such a foundational element in early country music. Hank Williams learned from a blues musician. My father played Hank Williams songs and I learned to play music from him. So it's all part of a nice continuum," notes Farrar. "I wake up everyday, read the news, and then ask myself, 'What would Woody Guthrie say about these current times?' Since November, I've been writing more songs than usual trying to make sense of what's going on."

Farrar had a second major inspirational itch to scratch throughout Notes of Blue as well. After primarily playing acoustic guitar on the last few Son Volt records, he was ready to plug in the electric guitars and crank up the amps a bit. He even re-employed some trusty equipment to help get the job done on gritty howlers like "Cherokee St.," "Lost Souls" and "Static" by pulling out the same 1930s Webster Chicago amp that is pictured on the cover of Son Volt's 1995 debut record, Trace. "I felt like it had the right vibe and the right aesthetic for this batch of songs and it was also a nice way to mark that album's 20-year milestone."

Farrar's acoustic-electric dichotomy provides an engaging and enjoyable listening experience throughout the album's 10 songs, which was a natural creative choice that was made clear from each song's inception. "For the songs on this record, I already had a pretty good idea going into the recording sessions of which ones were going to be electric and which ones were going to remain acoustic. In the past, I've sometimes done both acoustic and electric versions of the same song to try and decide the direction," Farrar chuckles, "but I don't have time for stuff like that anymore."

Farrar will be taking Son Volt out on an extensive tour to support Notes of Blue, starting in early March and running though April with an appearance at this year's Stagecoach Festival.

Here are Son Volt's upcoming tour dates:

March 2 – Little Rock, AR @ Rev Room
March 3 – Dallas, TX @ Kessler Theater
March 4 – Austin, TX @ Scoot Inn
March 5 – Houston, TX @ Heights Theater
March 7 – Jackson, MS @ Duling Hall
March 8 – New Orleans, LA @ Parish
March 9 – Birmingham, AL @ WorkPlay
March 10 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
March 11 – Saxapahaw, NC @ Haw River Ballroom
March 12 – Charlotte, NC @ Visulite
March 14 – Asheville, NC @ Grey Eagle
March 15 – Knoxville, TN @ Bijou Theatre
March 16 – Chattanooga, TN @ Revelry Room
March 17 – Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley
March 18 – St. Louis, MO @ Pageant
March 28 – Kansas City, MO @ Knuckleheads Saloon
March 29 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
March 30 – Madison, WI @ Majestic Theatre
March 31 – Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Ballroom
April 1 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
April 2 – Ann Arbor, MI @ The Ark
April 4 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Small's
April 5 – Ardmore, PA @ Ardmore Music Hall
April 6 – Boston, MA @ Paradise
April 7 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
April 8 – Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade
April 9 – Tarrytown, NY @ Tarrytown Music Hall
April 11 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
April 12 – Rocky Mount, VA @ Harvester Performance
April 13 – Newark, OH @ Thirty One West
April 14 – Cincinnati, OH @ Southgate House
April 15 – Louisville, KY @ Headliner's
April 28 – Indio, CA @ Stagecoach Festival