With his flannel shirts and nasally tenor, musician Jay Farrar is an unlikely American idol. But that's exactly what the former Uncle Tupelo frontman -- who, along with his ex-musical partner, Jeff Tweedy, spearheaded the alt-country movement -- has become. It's been 10 long years since Farrar and Tweedy parted ways, and now, one band and five albums later, Farrar finally sounds comfortable in his own skin.
Today, Farrar is calling from Santa Barbara, California, where he's scheduled to play a Gram Parsons tribute concert alongside Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, and Keith Richards. "I'm going to do 'Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man,' which Gram wrote for the Byrds, and 'Christine's Tune,' off the Flying Burrito Brothers album," he says happily.
Wait a minute. Is this the same guy who, in his days with Son Volt, his Uncle Tupelo follow-up, spent his time onstage staring over the audience, too rigid to improvise a single moment? Farrar's live performances are infamous for his stoicism and stiffness. But he sounds delighted by the prospect of jamming with Jones or Richards. His new release, a live album titled Stone, Steel & Bright Lights, confirms it: Farrar has relaxed at last.
"I enjoy being on the road, but I'll never be the guy who works the room," Farrar says with a laugh, crediting his change of heart to years touring as a solo artist after dissolving Son Volt. "Playing solo, you feed off the audience more. From my perspective, I could have more interaction with the room. That's where you get a feeling for the craft.
"The primary motivation [behind Stone, Steel & Bright Lights] was to take a band out and play a lot of songs off the two solo records I've done," Farrar continues. "I wanted to play those songs in a live context with a band." He tapped Canyon, a five-piece country-rock group, for the task: "I let them know early on that the idea was to reinterpret my songs, not just re-create exactly what was done on the records. Canyon brought a lot to the table. Our rehearsals were very collaborative."
Backed by Canyon, Farrar turns sparse acoustic laments such as "Cahokian" and "Fool King's Crown" -- which both appeared on his last solo album, Terroir Blues -- into brooding ballads worthy of Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. He revisits "Heart on the Ground" (which he'd already cut twice, as a stripped-down country tune and full-blown rock-and-roll number), unraveling the rhythms until only a ragged waltz form remains.
"Coming off Terroir Blues, which is primarily a collection of more down-tempo, melancholic stuff, I was ready to get back to more of a loud band aesthetic," Farrar maintains. "Walking into a band that had a pre-existing dynamic was a good experience for me. Everything fell together pretty quickly."
Two original numbers, "Doesn't Have To Be This Way" and "6 String Belief," round out Stone, Steel & Bright Lights, which was recorded last autumn at theaters and clubs from coast to coast. The latter track might prove to be a worthy credo for Farrar's own life and for the fans who have followed his career for two decades. "Killed by consolidation, killed by saturation/The underground will correct with reaction, rebellion/Rock-and-roll around my head, alive and kicking," he sings on the alt-country protest song. "Corruption in the system/A grassroots insurrection will bring them down."
"I was thinking about the old argument 'Is rock dead?'" Farrar explains. "It's not, even though the industry [has] tried to kill it as often as it can. I was referencing the fact that there's still good music happening out there."
Farrar was dropped from Warner Bros. shortly after Son Volt released a third album, Wide Swing Tremelo, in 1998. As luck would have it, in 2001, Tweedy's group, Wilco, was dropped from the same label. But while Tweedy turned the misfortune around, wrangling a new deal with Nonesuch (ironically, a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) and producing a documentary film of Wilco's travails in the process, Farrar simply turned his back on the majors and formed his own label, Transmit Sound.
"It's a pretty common story, really," Farrar says. "When things get bad at the top, good stuff starts happening at a grassroots level. I got dropped at the same time [as Tweedy]. I just didn't make it a public relations thing. I said, okay, I'm moving on.
"I'm in a position where I can continue to play live and make it happen without external support," Farrar says. "Of course, I have to keep chugging away at it, and there is the potential burnout factor. It's difficult to get a record out there once you see the mechanics of it. You have to pay record stores just to carry your CD, through things like co-op advertising, and that principle is carried throughout the industry."
Farrar stops to consider the alternative. "I intend to keep this going," he says firmly. "Having the autonomy to do what I want is invigorating."