Contemporary Bakersfield: A Review of Son Volt’s Honky TonkBy Brock Kingsley
March 05, 2013
Since the break-up of Uncle Tupelo in 1994, fans have traditionally split into two camps. These two camps seem to be less Son Volt or Wilco and more Farrar or Tweedy. Jay Farrar may never win the popularity contest with Wilco and Jeff Tweedy. And it seems as though he doesn’t care. He and Son Volt have largely stayed true to the roots of their first album, 1995’s Trace: a kind of country-infused rock. Even as Farrar moved away from that earlier sound on his solo work, he seemed to be moving towards this record. Like the albums that came before it, Honky Tonk is flush with skilled musicians and well-crafted songs dealing with matters of the heart and the human condition.
Other than that, Honky Tonk is a wholly different record than Son Volt’s first four albums, and a step further than American Central Dust. Its no-nonsense title tells you exactly what to expect: honky tonk music. Honky Tonk is specifically a contemporary Bakersfield, California sound—the sound that Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard made famous. There are twangy strings and multiple fiddles mixed in with an occasional cajun sound. Farrar worked on his pedal steel guitar by playing with Colonel Ford in St. Louis, and one feels that this influence continued straight into the making of Honky Tonk.
The twang comes from the instruments, but the heart and soul are wrapped up in Farrar’s vocals and lyrics. Farrar has always had a keen eye and ear for the American landscape. Love and loss, and all that is beautiful and tragic about this place we live in. What better place to observe all of this than in a honky tonk—a uniquely American place full of sadness, booze, and music.
“Tears Of Change,” sounds like a smoky music hall bathed in blue lights. Half the crowd dancing with a sweetheart, the other half drinking at the bar, alone. It is a song of heartache that not even time can begin to heal.
“Angel Of The Blues” is pure pain with crying guitars mourning a lost love. Farrar sings about not being able to make the right connections, about missing out: “words that connect but never gain enough traction/ Dust forever blown astray.”
Appropriately, the song that best encapsulates the sounds and themes of Honky Tonk is “Bakersfield.” It’s a blue-collar song celebrating the people who work all week and are at the center of the trouble when “hell breaks loose on a Saturday night.” These are people who love and lose, whose hearts are “hung out on a line to dry.” It’s a song about living for today, about searching for the small, meaningful things in life: “What do you want? Where will you find it? You can call it what you will.” Farrar sings of broken hearts in jail cells, and of neon lights and barroom nights. “Bakersfield” embodies the sound it gave its name to. It’s pedal steels and rough edges and mean corners. And the sound can be heard in other songs like “Barricades,” and “Hearts and Minds.” It isn’t hard to imagine these songs being part of the Bakersfield sound in the ‘60s or ‘70s—anti-Nashville songs.
Honky Tonk is a country album to drink to. Its songs are full of dark corners flecked with light. Its rooms are smoky and smell of whiskey and beer. Its music is like the people that inhabit these places—not slick or over produced, but rusty and authentic. Most importantly, Honky Tonk is a tribute to those who played before. It is an ode to the simple things in life, hard work and hard play. A catalog of heartbreak, despair, and the road we take to get back home.
Thanks for the peek, Brock.
Trace is my favorite album ever … or at least the most listenable, according to my iTunes count. I love albums you can put on and just forget about.
Buying Honky Tonk now.