June/July 2003

Fifty miles northeast of St. Louis, the Illinois farmland begins its slow roll down the shoulders of the Mississippi River valley. Thirty miles from the city, huge earthmovers chew through hillsides and spit out suburbia. Towns flash past: Eagerville, Edwardsville, Maryville, Collinsville. Garish ads elbow for attention at off-ramps; an inventory of their faces could be one of the man's lyrics: "Fast-food chains and cheap motels/Loosest nickels at the Alton Belle." Finally, almost in the shadow of the city itself, the odd, camelback humps appear, the Seussian hillocks, topographical vestiges of a thousand-year-old society. The CD spins and the man sings: "Ceremonial mounds in the backyards and towns/that's the way it turned out."

Jay Farrar wants to meet at the Courtesy Diner. It's an old-school greasy spoon situated on a grim retail strip a few blocks south of sprawling Forest Park. I arrive first, grab a local paper and a booth at one end, and wait. With only a sidelong perspective on the parking lot and no idea what Farrar drives, I watch and guess. Presently a black, vaguely sporty car pulls into the far end of the lot. The silhouette of a man's face behind the wheel, the shadow of a baseball cap turned backwards: This is not a Farrar profile. The white sneaker that meets the pavement beneath the driver's door does not belong to a Farrar foot.

Minutes pass; the waitress comes and goes. A well-traveled red Volvo rumbles into the lot. It stops and the door opens; the emergent leg wears old blue jeans and ends in a dark leather shoe. Yes. We decide not to stay at the diner and pile back into the Volvo. The odometer reads well past 300,000, but Jay says it lies. He shuffles a stack of CDs-Guitar Slim, My Morning Jacket, Ry Cooder with Manuel Galban. He unwraps a tin of Altoids, eats one and offers one. He merges into traffic.

Farrar's rehearsal and recording space, Jajouka, is housed in a squat brick building on a quiet residential corner of a neighborhood called Dogtown. It's a long room, riotous with amps and instruments in road cases, two mixing boards, a melodica, and an ancient organ, cluttered with copies of Rolling Stone, a dog-eared paperback memoir by Al Kooper, color photos printed from the Internet of the Beatles and William Shatner. The yellowed walls are mostly bare, save for an old photo of a children's ensemble and a St. Louis city map tacked above a ratty couch.

This is actually the second Jajouka; the first, where Son Volt recorded its 1998 album Wide Swing Tremolo and Farrar tracked his 2001 solo debut, Sebastopol, was in Milstadt, Ill., southeast of St. Louis. Directly below this current space is a professional studio called Broom Factory; upon moving in, Jay punched a hole in the floor and ran cables to Broom Factory's control room. As a result, the tracks that make up his new disc, Terroir Blues, were performed upstairs at Jajouka but recorded below at Broom Factory.

Farrar started the work that yielded Terroir Blues here in the spring of 2002. That's when he began toying with a digital sampler, recording bits of notes and noise, then manipulating and reversing them. As the weather warmed he made time nearly every day for music-not as easy as it used to be for a man now married with a four-year-old son and a daughter born last April. He sat in this studio working out melodies on guitar, scrawling lyrics on scraps of paper, and recording his ideas; by summer's end he'd penned an album's worth of songs.

Through most of his first two decades as a songwriter and bandleader, Farrar's approach to writing and recording was straightforward. With Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt, he hewed mostly to the organic intimacy of guitar-bass-drum arrangements and a purist's live-in-the-studio credo; his repertoire ran from stinging rockers and weary waltzes to aching country shuffles and key-of-G balladry. But after making seven albums this way in less than ten years, purity was starting to seem like a confining dogma, and a strategy once refreshingly simple was threatening to turn stale.

He finished out Son Volt's Wide Swing Tremolo tour in fall 1999, then put the band on ice. "We'd been touring heavily and recording in between for about five years straight," Jay says now. "The next thing we attempted would be a repeat of one of the previous records we'd made, so I thought we needed to give it a break for a while." Before long, Farrar had quietly started work on a solo record. When word leaked publicly, Son Volt's Boquist brothers, Dave and Jim, were furious. They claimed to know nothing of the project and said they hadn't spoken to Farrar since the end of the Tremolo tour-but in the three years since, no one involved has pronounced the band dead. To the contrary, Farrar considers the group a going concern. "I'd like to do more with them at some point," he says. "I think it'd make sense to do another record. There are no plans to do that, but I think the desire is there from all of those guys." And as for any hurt feelings among members? "Fortunately," Farrar says, "we've been able to survive that. We're still all on good terms."

Functioning free of a band context for the first time in his career, the Sebastopol sessions found Farrar taking a new approach to nearly every aspect of his craft. He wrote songs in alternate tunings on various types of guitars. Rather than tracking a live ensemble, he assembled the songs piece by piece. And he collaborated promiscuously, inviting contributions from the likes of Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, ex-Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer, Flaming Lips jack-of-all-trades Steven Drozd, folkies Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and inventive blues picker Kelly Joe Phelps. In the end, Farrar's solo debut would emphasize droning guitars, heavy rhythm tracks, keyboard tapestries and rich synth backdrops.

Today, Jay sits at the new Jajouka with a second solo disc done and a new perspective on Sebastopol. "Yeah, that was the synth period," he says, almost chuckling. "I was into it, and Steve Drozd definitely upped it a notch. I think you search for instrumentation that provides inspiration, and try to go with it. So I went with it-and on this one, I'm going back to things like steel."

The song structures and arrangements on Terroir Blues should seem more familiar to fans than the relatively radical sounds of Sebastopol. Comprised mostly of midtempo tunes, the new disc is the product of playing to old strengths while incorporating the lessons of recent experience.

One element common to both discs is Farrar's frequent use of open-tuned guitars. "It opens up a lot more possibilities, a lot of variety," Jay says, "just from the standpoint of not going over familiar territory. With alternate tunings, everything comes out with a different voicing that's oftentimes more modal-sounding." But Farrar wasn't ready to repeat the same painstaking process of recording the songs in pieces. "I hadn't really done a whole record that way, and I wanted to try it," he says. "I feel good that I did it. And now"-he stops to crack a smile-"I don't have to go back to that method for a while."

Instead, Terroir Blues is largely the product of a band playing live, right here in this ramshackle room. The core group that gathered last December and January included Farrar on vocals, guitar and piano, Wurster on drums, and Spencer on electric, slide, and lap steel guitar, plus bassist John Horton, a St. Louis musician whose usual gigs include Mike Ireland's band Holler and (with Farrar's brother Dade) the Rockhouse Ramblers. Other local layers added flute and cello; pedal steel wizard Eric Heywood played on a few tracks and Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets anted up a sitar part.

The completed album you will hold in your hand is an hour-long disc containing 23 tracks, but it's not as daunting as it seems. To begin with, six of the 23 cuts are short noise pieces, none even a minute long. They're examples of the digital sampling Farrar explored before he started writing the songs themselves. The noise pieces he calls "space junk." There's also a pair of brief instrumentals ("Fish Fingers Norway" and "Jam") and two versions each of four other songs ("No Rolling Back," "Hanging On to You," "Heart On the Ground," and "Hard is the Fall"). In all, then, the album really offers 11 unique tunes. Which leaves two questions sticking out like cheekbones on a fashion model: Why so much other stuff? And who the heck has agreed to release this thing? The answers are inseparable: There's so much other stuff because that's how Jay hears it and because he can; he can because he left Artemis, which released Sebastopol, for an outfit called Act/Resist, which is owned by-well, Jay Farrar. The wealth of material stems in part from a new approach to recording the songs that came to comprise Terroir Blues. "In the past, oftentimes we'd have an electric version and an acoustic version, but we'd usually give up on one of the versions as soon as it looked like that wasn't the way to go," Jay explains. "This time, we pretty much gave 'em all a chance, and I decided to just throw 'em all on there as long as there was enough of a contrast. I know that there's almost an unwritten rule that you don't do that, but I felt like, 'Why not?' When you're putting it out yourself, you have all the time in the world."

Farrar says the decision to launch his own label was prompted by a series of conclusions he's reached about the music business. First, it's "a systemic reality that sooner or later you're gonna get dropped from the label or the label's gonna go out of business, so I felt like putting it out on my own would be the best way to ensure that I always have an outlet for what I'm writing." What's more, "the freedom of being able to put records out whenever and however I want will enable me to do other side projects and to mix things up a bit more than I have in the past-at least I hope."

He goes on: "When you're with another label, they have a lot of, ah, persuasive techniques"-he laughs-"to try to get you to promote it the way they want you to promote it. So I don't have to turn down the Regis Philbin show or the morning zoo anymore." The bottom line, Farrar says, is that "being in the system over the years changes your outlook-to the point where you realize that you don't want to be a part of the system." Going it alone, as Farrar's friend Gillian Welch has shown with her Acony imprint, is a viable-maybe even more lucrative-option.

A dozen years ago, Farrar sang with righteous desperation about "looking for a way out." Today, though, he's putting down roots. That first word in the new album's title is pronounced "tehr-wah"; it's a French term meaning "soil or heritage."

Of course, he did get out of dead-end, blue-collar Belleville-the St. Louis suburb where he grew up. Geographically speaking, though, he didn't go farther than a few dozen miles west. No, the change in outlook is the result of something, or several somethings, greater: Growing up, having kids, losing a father and finding a home. Except for a brief stint in New Orleans after he left Uncle Tupelo, Farrar has been settled in St. Louis his entire adult life. In his songs, he excavates and venerates the good, bad and ugly of the city's culture: Listen to his Son Volt records and you'll hear references to the original Route 66, the Mississippi floods, Times Beach toxins, and the hungry wrecking balls that devour old buildings. The Sebastopol song "Outside the Door" was a shadow civic history, weaving blues legends, longshoremen and long-gone slums into a single narrative. He casts his lyrical eye back even further on the new album's cautionary tale "Cahokian," using the story of a vanished 11th-Century society as a parable for our own. Even this disc's title is a St. Louis reference: "It's a French word, and I know I'm gonna catch some flak for using that," Farrar admits. "But here, every other street has a French name."

Farrar says he initially stayed in St. Louis because its central location made touring easier, but the proximity of family was also a draw-Jay's three siblings and his mother, Darlene, still live in the area, as did his father, Jim "Pops" Farrar, before his death last August of cancer.

The passing of Pops was a blow to many who knew him as a local character; raised in the Ozark foothills during the Depression, he'd been a globetrotter in the merchant marine. He served in Germany and Korea and sailed nearly everywhere else; he played harmonica and accordion and collected songs. Back in Missouri, Pops married Darlene, worked on riverboats, and shared his music with anyone who would listen. Jay's grief hangs thick and humid when he talks about his father; on the Terroir Blues tune "Dent County," the weight of love and loss is apparent: "I think of you in Inchon, think of you in Bremerhaven /I still hear strains of singing /I know you made it home."

By now, of course, Farrar has plenty of personal history of his own in St. Louis. That's clear as we walk down Delmar Boulevard in University City. "There," he says, pointing to a gleaming nightclub called Blueberry Hill. "That used to be Cicero's, where Uncle Tupelo played when we were just starting out. It was around the corner here, and downstairs, in the basement. There was no stage, really. It was like playing in a dungeon."

A new generation of fans too young to have seen Cicero's or the band while either existed can glimpse both in the liner notes of Uncle Tupelo's pathbreaking debut album, No Depression-which, along with the group's three subsequent releases, was remastered, repackaged and issued this spring. In preparing the new discs, Farrar revisited a lot of long-lost old tapes. "It was kind of weird to listen to it," he says, "but ultimately it was good to go back. You can hear how much time and practice we put into it. It's hard to analyze what you did a long time ago, but overall, it was good to go back and find some of the stuff that I had forgotten about. It helps flesh out some of the original vision we had, to put out the unreleased original songs especially-and it kind of lends a constructive air of finality to Uncle Tupelo." The CD spins and a young man sings: There was a time; that time is gone.

In his songs and interviews-and quite possibly portions of this piece-Farrar can seem reticent, oblique, and melancholy. The impression isn't incorrect, but neither is it entirely accurate. He often seems to say as little as necessary-a sentence or two, then a portentous glance and a slight nod or smile-but he's not unkind. And he's funny: Ask about his penchant for drawing out lyrics and his unmistakable habit of bending vocal notes up and down the scale; "well," he replies, "that's plain old bad singing." Then there's the tale, told while listening to scratchy blues 78s at Jajouka, of his old jukebox: A few years ago, Jay moved into a house with a musty, abandoned Wurlitzer in the living room. It worked; he played 45s on it. But when he got married and moved out of the house, he sold the jukebox on eBay and instructed the winning bidder to come and collect it. The buyer was an older man, Jay remembers, who walked right in and embraced the hulking machine. Then the man noticed Jay's guitar. "You're a musician?" he asked. "Maybe you know my son, Robert Van Winkle." Jay apologized; he didn't know the son. "Oh, come on," the man said. "You know that song, 'Ice Ice Baby'?" Jay

laughs: "I sold my Wurlitzer on eBay to Vanilla Ice's dad!"

My morning drive unfurls in reverse, this time with Jay at the

wheel: First the double-deck expressway that skirts the south end of downtown St. Louis, past the ballpark and the gleaming arch. Then the bridge over the blue-black wide river, the snaking curves of the elevated freeway that hums above the desperate grit of the east side, and finally the Cahokia Mounds, green in the afternoon sun.

We take the state park exit. The Cahokia tribe built a great society in this region some ten centuries ago, then simply disappeared. The cause of their demise remains a mystery, but their ceremonial mounds still stand-well, most of them. Jay says that when St. Louis was built, the largest mound of all was razed to make room. The city fathers posed for proud photos, hacking away.

He parks the Volvo in the shade at one side of a long gravel lot and we walk to the nearest mound, then up its south face on steps Jay says were laid by the local Boy Scouts. The wind is whipping at the top and you can see for miles.

We look north, across ochre fields and tree-lined rises blushing green with young buds. "I couldn't live the rural life," Farrar says. "But I feel the pull."

We turn west, toward the spires of the city.

"See that farthest mound?" Farrar asks. He points. "The brown one?" Yes.

"That's the St. Louis landfill."