Jay Farrar

TrackAlbum / EP
Station To StationThirdShiftGrottoSlack
CahokianTerroir Blues
Dent CountyTerroir Blues
VitaminsLive In Seattle
Hard TimesDeath Songs For The Living
Buzz & GrindDeath Songs For The Living
Big SurOne Fast Move Or I'm Gone
Hoping MachineNew Multitudes

Jay Farrar Stone Steel



Jay Farrar playlist


Contributor: Andrew Shields

In a previous Toppermost, I looked at the musical career of Son Volt, the band in which Jay Farrar has been the frontman since 1994. In this piece, however, I will be looking at the solo work that Farrar recorded in the period between 1999 and 2004 when he put that band on hold. I will also be choosing some tracks from the various side-projects he has undertaken in more recent times; this work is far looser and more experimental than his earlier material. As a result, it has not really received the critical attention that it deserves.

These solo albums also enabled him to explore various types of musical avenues which he might otherwise not have done. They have also tended to be more acoustic guitar-based than his work with Son Volt. In this regard, they have given him the opportunity to engage with his long-term interest in open-guitar tunings – an interest which largely stems from his admiration for the work of the great English folk-influenced songwriter, Nick Drake. There is also a psychedelic tinge to some of these albums, which perhaps stems from Farrar’s enthusiasm for bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and for the edgier side of the Byrds.

My first choice, Barstow, comes from Farrar’s debut solo album, Sebastopol, first released in 2001. In my opinion, it ranks as the greatest post-apocalyptic country song ever written. It is also one of the finest songs that Jay has ever recorded. The lyric also shows his concern at the way in which the big corporations in the US are causing widespread environmental degradation (don’t take notice of the rising waters/ don’t take notice where rivers run dry/ they’ll be digging through the landfills/ to find evidence of our great demise). On the album, the song is given added resonance and an otherworldly quality by the fine lap steel playing of Dave Rawlings and the great harmony vocal of Gillian Welch.

Matt Pence also adds to the song’s ominous quality by the extraordinary quality of his drumming. For comparison’s sake, here is a live performance of the song by Farrar with Gary Hunt on mandolin:

Our resident expert on string instruments, David Lewis, has described Hunt’s playing here as ‘tasty’. By contrast, the next choice, Drain, is one of Farrar’s most beautiful melodies. It is also one of his few piano-based songs. For me at least, it also reflects the influence of one of his earliest musical heroes, Neil Young.

There is a vaguely oriental inflection in my next pick from Sebastopol. Vitamins perhaps reflects Farrar’s enthusiasm for the music of the great British acoustic guitarists of the 1960s, especially Davey Graham and Bert Jansch. Rather than the studio version (which is excellent in its own right) I have chosen the one from the Live In Seattle album. This brings out the psychedelic ambience of the song more effectively and here is a brilliant live performance with Mark Spencer on electric guitar.

The next choice, Station To Station, comes from Farrar’s excellent 2005 EP, ThirdShiftGrottoSlack. It has an unusually sunny melody for one of his songs, although the lyrics deals – very obliquely, even by Farrar’s standards – with much darker themes.

By contrast, Cahokian, from Farrar’s second solo album Terroir Blues, is an even darker song. In its lyric, Farrar uses the Cahokia mounds site in Missouri as a metaphor for the decline of contemporary America. Despite an occasional awkwardness in the lyric (I will wait for you in the green, green spaces/ wearing our post-industrial faces), the song has a bleak beauty to it which makes it one of the finest of Jay’s solo career. This starkness is reinforced by the fine cello part by Janice Rieman.

While Farrar has rarely written personal or confessional songs, Dent County is an exception to this rule. It’s a beautiful tribute to his late father ‘Pops’ and, in my opinion, it ranks as one of his most moving songs.

The next two selections, Hard Times and Buzz And Grind, come from the excellent album, Death Songs For The Living, which Farrar recorded with Anders Parker of Varnaline in 2006. They recorded it under the name Gob Iron. In mood, it is similar to Uncle Tupelo’s classic album, March 16–20, 1992. Most of the songs on it are based – sometimes very loosely – on old folk songs. Although it borrows a few lines from Stephen Foster’s classic of the same name, my first choice from it, Hard Times, is essentially a Farrar original. As such, it ranks as one of his finest folk-based songs.

There is also a beautifully intricate instrumental interplay between Farrar and Parker on Buzz And Grind. It’s a very different sort of song – a driving blues based one. Taken as a whole, the album is excellent and it represents probably the finest of Farrar’s musical collaborations outside of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt.

From his early days working in his mother’s bookshop, Farrar had been a keen admirer of Jack Kerouac’s writings. Indeed, the emphasis on ‘the road’ in his songs – and the sometimes elliptical and allusive character of his lyrics – owe a good deal to the works of the Beat writers in general. As a result, he was a natural choice when the director, Curt Woden, was looking for someone to write music for his documentary film on Kerouac, One False Move Or I’m Gone. To do so, Farrar teamed up with Ben Gibbard, the frontman of the indie band, Death Cab for Cutie. One of the pleasures of the album which resulted from this collaboration is the way in which Farrar’s lived-in vocals harmonise with Gibbard’s far smoother ones. The songs on it are all based on Kerouac’s own writings. In other hands this might have been a recipe for a disappointing outcome. However, in this case, both men’s respect for the writer shines through their work on it. My choice from the CD, Big Sur, also features one of Farrar’s finest melodies.

In a similar way Farrar’s song Hoping Machine – based on an unused lyric which he discovered in the Woody Guthrie archives which were then based in New York – also repays an old debt (in this case musical). It has an unusual hypnotic melody and there is an interesting interplay between Farrar’s characteristic melancholy and Woody’s inherent optimism.

Along with the other selections here, Hoping Machine also reinforces Jay Farrar’s position as one of the very finest songwriters of his generation. It also shows him to be a worthy successor to the great songwriters of the past including Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.


Ten Best Covers

Since the days of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar has recorded some superb covers of other people’s songs. He’s also done other ones which have not been recorded. I have included a selection of these here. Where these have been recorded, I’ve given the name of the albums on which they appear as well as the songwriter(s). In those cases where they have not been recorded, I’ve included a link from the song title to the relevant youtube video.

Moonshiner (Traditional) – March 16–20, 1992
Mystifies Me (Ron Wood) – Trace
Like A Hurricane (Neil Young) – Stone, Steel And Bright Lights
Rex’s Blues (Townes Van Zandt) – A Retrospective: 1995–2000
Looking At The World Through A Windshield (Jerry Chestnut/ Mike Hoyer) – ditto
I’ve Got To Know (Woody Guthrie) – ditto
Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man (Gram Parsons)
Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (Waylon Jennings)
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (Bob Dylan)
What Goes On (Lou Reed)


Jay Farrar photo 2

Ben Gibbard & Jay Farrar – photo Autumn de Wilde/Shore Fire Media


Jay Farrar photo 3

Son Volt – photo David McClister/All Eyes Media


Jay Farrar official website

“Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs: Portraits from a Musical Life”
Jay Farrar (Soft Skull Press, 2013)

Jay Farrar talks to Brian Koppelman about his life in music (2019)

Farrar spoke about 6 of his best songs (Uproxx 2017)

Gibbard And Farrar Take On Kerouac’s ‘Big Sur'(NPR 2009)

Jay Farrar’s latest project, Gob Iron (St Louis magazine 2006)

Jay Farrar: Playing On His Own Terms With ‘Terroir Blues’ (Glide 2003)

Son Volt official website

Toppermost #947: Son Volt

Limited Edition 25th Anniversary Trace Lyric Book

Toppermost #497: Uncle Tupelo

Jay Farrar biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

TopperPost #950


  1. David Lewis
    Apr 21, 2021

    I think I prefer Jay’s solo work to Son Volt, which I think is terrific. He seems also to be a great arranger. Some of those arrangements are just sublime.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Apr 26, 2021

    Well, here’s another nice Topper you’ve gotten me into, Andrew. Excellent as usual and as I was working my way through the music and matching the text, the thought occurred to me, just how would you describe that very recognisable voice? And then I alighted on your words “characteristic melancholy”. Or, somewhere in Cohen/Van Zandt land but with the particular humanity of Farrar.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Apr 26, 2021

    David & Dave – Thanks for the comments.
    David – agree that Jay’s solo work is very under-rated. ‘Trace” remains his masterpiece for me (to-date) though.
    Dave- Jay is one of those utterly distinctive vocal stylists. Might throw Johnny Cash in as an influence on his singing style too – while researching this piece I came across a reference to him as being a ‘Cash-addict’ early on.

  4. Carl Parker
    Aug 3, 2021

    This has encouraged me to go back to listen to Sebastopol, which I bought at time of release but found underwhelming.
    I have to admit to being gobsmacked at the end of the Vitamins clip above – he spoke and said “Thanks a lot”.
    Many years back I saw him at The Borderline in London and he didn’t say a word. Not a Hello when he came on stage. Not a “This song is..” nor a thanks at the end. Not a Goodnight when he left the stage.
    I know it could be argued we were there for the music, which included some Son Volt favourites and was very good, but a little chat can go a long way.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Aug 4, 2021

    Thanks for comment Carl. Saw Son Volt a few years ago here and they were really excellent. Jay didn’t say very much then either but by the end even he seemed to be enjoying himself. He almost smiled on one occasion…

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