Published Jun 26, 2009As America's awakened from the long Bush nightmare, it's been strange until now to not have Jay Farrar's voice among the chorus hailing the rejuvenation. Yet, on this third album since his band reformed in 2005 with an entirely new line-up, Farrar offers plenty of poignant observations and strong opinions. Amid the cautious optimism it wouldn't be a Son Volt record without some bittersweet reflections on the state of the union. Post-Katrina New Orleans, the ongoing dependence on fossil fuels and even Keith Richards snorting his father's ashes form the basis for some of the best songs Farrar has written so far. The real surprise is "Sultana," a detailed retelling of the worst maritime disaster within U.S. borders, which claimed the lives of hundreds of soldiers only a month after the end of the Civil War. Musically, these ideas come across with sharp clarity through a stripped down approach often reminiscent of the band's essential debut album, Trace. That said, Farrar's ease at conveying the experience he has absorbed since then is thoroughly evident on American Central Dust, firmly restoring Son Volt's place as one of the few bands that still live up the definition of Americana.
The early word on this album was that it had a sound similar to Trace.
Farrar: The approach was to try to make a focused record. Coming off making The Search and Okemah, I felt like it was time to try for a more focused sound, and one way to do that, at least from my perspective, was to play nothing but acoustic guitar.
Where did the inspiration for "Sultana" come from? It doesn't sound like any kind of song you've written before.
Yeah, it surprised me too. One day the idea just popped in my head that I'd like to write a narrative, story-based song. My father worked on the Mississippi River so I was constantly fed river stories growing up. I'd never heard anything about the Sultana from him but I got interested in finding out what stories the river had to tell, and the first thing that popped up was Sultana. It's such a sadly powerful name, much like Titanic.
"Cocaine and Ashes" came from Keith Richards' story about snorting his father's ashes?
It was kind of an idiosyncratic comment from Keith but I was moved by it. I thought that this is a real way for somebody to show love for a deceased parent. Most people would probably have a shot of whiskey or something, but Keith's from a different era. (Rounder)