The birth of "alt.country," a fusion of country music with rock, folk and blues with a DIY sensibility, took its first breaths under the proud parentage of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, the songwriting forces behind Uncle Tupelo, in the late '80s and early '90s.
In the 14 years since, alt.country has spawned many Ryan Adamses and the like, but the real story behind the sound follows the musical lives of Tweedy and Farrar, even as they parted ways after the release of Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne (1993), and formed Wilco and Son Volt, respectively.
These days, both Tweedy and Farrar are producing music that is unmistakably their best work ever, glazed with their signature musical trademarks, and above and beyond the cage of genre classifications like "alt.country." Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made many a music critic's best records of 2002 list, and Farrar's solo efforts, 2001's Sebastopol and 2003's Terrior Blues, take that country-rock-folk-blues mix, and gently swirl it until it settles into something else entirely.
Farrar's straightforward songs have always had that country music sense that home is where the heart is, and anywhere else is beautiful and strange. Terrior Blues is seeped in the maxim that your surroundings help create who you are. The "terrior" (as the French say, "ter-WAH") part of the title comes from a French term that explains the way soil and environment can effect the grapes used for wine; how different amounts of sunlight or minerals in the soil can make wines sweeter, tarter, crisper.
"It's difficult to translate to English," said Farrar, on the phone from his home in Missouri, where he's lived most of his life. And so Terrior Blues is music that alludes to local places, specifically places local to Farrar. St. Louis "historically has a lot of older music--blues, jazz," Farrar pointed out; Terrior Blues is music cultivated in Missouri soil--crisp, twangy, sad and soulful, with just a hint of chicory.
Terrior Blues, which was released on Farrar's own record label, Act/Resist Records, can be seen as an extension of his first solo record, Sebastopol, in that it is sparse, sad and stretches out.
"I was writing in a similar way, using alternate tunings, and it's another solo record, keeping that structure ... but (Terrior Blues) is different," Farrar said. "Sebastopol was more studio-oriented, while Terrior Blues has the energy and vibe of a live band."
To record Terrior Blues, Farrar enlisted multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer of the Blood Oranges, John Horton of the Bottle Rockets on guitar and bass and Jon Wurster of Superchunk on drums, as well as a few other guest musicians, such as Brian Henneman (also of the Bottle Rockets), who plays slide electric sitar on "Fool King's Crown." Terrior Blues' carefully layered instrumentation and arrangement give it that crisp, stretched twang, and the songs come together like they're being performed by a live band. There's a certain spontaneity and acoustic resonance that guitars normally give off in the comfort of your own living room. On "Cahokian," that sound is enhanced by cello, and "Out On the Road" features a flute.
"The intent was to capture the energy that you find (from a live band)," said Farrar.
Farrar's songs often tell stories of places and are subtly political; "Cahokian" contrasts the ancient Mississippian civilization with the modern cities along the river, saying the modern-day inhabitants are "the new Mississippians under a smog-choked sun, waiting to be undone."
The mark of a great songwriter is the ability to evoke a range of emotional allusions through lyric and melody; these aren't just love songs or straightforward homages to places. Farrar's voice is so distinctive that often the words being sung become secondary to the very sound of his voice.
Songs that specifically mention places do so with adoration and detail. "It's been said before but it's worth saying, no one could dream a place like California," sings Farrar on the chorus of "California"; on "Dent County," a melancholy elegy for Farrar's father, who died last summer, the vocal melody is echoed by piano as Farrar sings "the fear of the world around us now, back in Dent County."
Between solo records, Farrar wrote the score for the 2002 independent film The Slaughter Rule; Terrior Blues has a soundtrack feel to it that comes from several short pieces interspersed between songs called "Space Junk" that are tape loops played backwards. Four songs on the record reappear in different versions, as if to accentuate a certain mood the way a specific melody or refrain might reappear throughout a film score.
Farrar did have that concept in mind, he said, but additionally, "in some cases, the two versions were different enough ... and I couldn't decide" which version to put on the record. Somehow, it is far from repetitive; on the first listen, it's a little like deja vu, until you look at the song titles. A few changes in instrumentation and speed can dramatically change the mood of a song.
For the tour in support of Terrior Blues, Farrar will be backed by a Washington, D.C., band called Canyon, whose different arrangements offer new interpretations of Farrar's songs. There are still the basics: guitar, bass, drums, and lap steel, but guitarist Joe Winkle uses effects on his guitar that "provide for different textures," said Farrar, and there's also a keyboard. The band has "been together a while (and they contribute their) own ideas, own dynamic," said Farrar.
It's this kind of flexibility that brought that alt.country sound into the world, and it's the same flexibility that has allowed Farrar to grow out of that label. As one of the creators of that sound, he's allowed the freedom to shape it and mold it and change it. Farrar calls it "genre-bending" and goes so far as to say that Terrior Blues is very not alt.country.
"It's usually restricting to be put in a box," he said. "The natural reaction is to climb out of the box." By using different instruments, different tunings, different arrangements and even different band members, Farrar isn't just outside of the box; he's heading down the road from it, the edges barely visible on the horizon.