On Saturday evening, Son Volt, an alternative country/Americana band, will take the stage at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs at 8 pm. Some of the band’s best-known songs go back to their debut 1995 album, “Trace,” but their latest album, “Union,” coincidentally shares a name with Saturday’s venue. Son Volt was founded in 1994 by Jay Farrar, following the breakup of his previous band, Uncle Tupelo. In the 25 years since, the band has released nine studio albums and explored many strands of the American musical tapestry. The concert will, according to Farrar, be evenly split between old and new material.
The songs on “Union” are topical, more political than personal. “A lot of the songs came about from me reading the headlines,” says Farrar. Some of the songs had clear references, but the news moves quickly, so much so that I took a moment to remember the story that inspired “Reality Winner.” Remember Reality Winner, the young intelligence analyst who leaked a NSA document about Russian election hacking to the media? Last August she was sentenced to five years and three months in prison. “I saw her more as a whistleblower than someone who should be in jail,” Farrar says. “I thought that the least I could do was write a song to let other people know, who might not know her story.” Another song, “The 99,” deals with rising inequality. “‘The 99’ started with reading about the Dakota pipeline protests,” Farrar says. “Every time I look the 1 percent has more and more of the wealth in this country.”
As I listened to the album, I looked at reviews online. The one-star reviews on Amazon.com made me more eager to listen closely to the words. “I think Jay has been watching too much Rachel Madcow! I gave it a 1 for the couple of non divisive tunes sandwiched between the leftest propaganda,” one reviewer wrote. Another reviewer said, “… haven’t felt this betrayed by an artist since Jackson Browne.” The idea that art or music should be politically neutral seems to be a sign of overheated antagonisms in the political world, and conflicting views seem to alienate some listeners rather than sparking dialog. It hasn’t always been that way, and several of the songs on “Union” show that it’s possible to address current events with a contemplative tone.
Farrar’s recent songs draw inspiration from the past as well as from recent headlines. He wrote all of the songs on the album, but in “Rebel Girl” he borrows lyrics from a song written over a hundred years ago by Joe Hill, a Swedish-American labor activist and songwriter. Farrar made the song his own by composing a new melody and music for it. In another nod to labor activist musicians of the past, some of the songs on “Union” were recorded at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla. “Woody always spoke for the underrepresented,” Farrar says. Others were recorded at the newly opened Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Ill., dedicated to the legacy of labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. “There used to be a hand-painted sign along the highway from Interstate 55 from St. Louis to Chicago,” Farrar recalls, marking the turn off to the miners’ cemetery where Mother Jones is buried. The remaining half of the songs on the album were recorded at Red Pill Studio in St. Louis.
Farrar says that he is reluctant to put labels on his musical style, “but Americana comes closest to it because it encompasses so many styles: country, blues, folk, and whatever else,” he says. The current Son Volt lineup includes Chris Frame on guitar, Andrew Duplantis on bass, Mark Patterson on drums, and Mark Spencer on keyboards. While online reviewers either loved or hated Farrar’s songwriting, I found only enthusiastic reviews of Son Volt’s live shows, which are characterized by a lack of chatter between songs. Jay Farrar did visit the Vineyard once, over a decade ago, on a family vacation, but this will be Son Volt’s first performance on the Island.
Son Volt plays at Union Chapel on Saturday, August 31, 8 pm. Visit mvconcertseries.com for ticket information.