“I’ve always been drawn to country music of the 1950s and early 1960s," says Jay Farrar, singer, guitarist and leader of the alt-country band Son Volt. "There was such energy in the recordings of that time period. I love the innovations that were taking place as far as pedal steel and different string combinations. That was all happening simultaneously with the advances in recording technology of the time. There was a fresh vibe to the early country records; those musicians would try anything."
On Son Volt's latest release, Honky Tonk, Farrar and his bandmates (David Bryson, drums; Mark Spencer, keyboards, bass, pedal steel; Gary Hunt, fiddle, mandolin, guitar; and Andrew Duplantis, bass) continue to spread the waters of traditional American music. With an emphasis on acoustic instruments (including twin fiddles) and two-step tempos, the sound of Honk Tonk, as the title suggests, is as far and away from today's polished country sound as you can get.
All of which suits Farrar just fine, who admits that that he doesn't seek out modern country music. "Sometimes I'll hear something in passing, if it’s on a TV channel or whatever," he says. "Contemporary country is essentially whatever is selling, so whatever is selling is therefore country music. Which, in theory, is great – if there’s a cross-pollination of styles, it can have great results." He thinks for a second, then adds pointedly, "I just don’t know if we’ve seen that yet."
Farrar, who with Jeff Tweedy co-led the wildly influential country-rock band Uncle Tupelo before he formed Son Volt in 1995, first heard country music by way of his father, Jay Sr., who played traditional American records in the house. However, Farrar says that he didn't fully embrace the genre till he was well into is teens.
"The Beatles covering Buck Owens, who was a huge influence on them – that helped me start to put the pieces together," he says. "At school, I was something of an outsider because I listened to garage and punk rock. I just wasn’t listening to the stuff that was on the radio. You heard the same songs over and over, so I was looking for something new. The country records that were made decades earlier filled the gaps."
On the following pages, Farrar, an inveterate music collector, looks through his extensive library and picks out what he considers to be 10 essential country recordings.