The Road Poet

There are many things that my wife does better than me. Some of these things I could have predicted before we were married. There are a few things, though, that I always thought would fall into my area of expertise. My wife’s a poet and a writer. I’m a songwriter and musician. We were both aspiring in each of those realms when we met at college. I remember, through mix tapes and concerts that I would invite her to, feeling that I was establishing myself as the “music” one of the couple. In the 17 years since we got married, if I am honest, I have to admit that it is she who discovers the great music and introduces it to me. I might have numbers on my side, I tend to take in more, absorb more of the music landscape in a given year. It’s how I’m wired. If I hear a new song on the radio, even if I don’t like the artist, I have to listen to it at least once, and I will remember it. It’s a blessing and a curse. But when it comes to the artists and albums that have been the most lasting, the most timely, and the most influential in my life as a songwriter, she wins, hands down.

Maybe it was the poetry of Jay Farrar’s track, “All Your Might”, which appeared on a PASTE Sampler in 2004 that led her to go out on a limb and give Farrar’s album Terroir Blues as a stocking stuffer instead of some of the other albums on my wish list for that year. It was a dark horse choice: an understated album that required time, time, and more time to sink in, from an artist I hadn’t ever given much of a listen to. Yeah, I had heard “Drown” on the alternative rock stations in the nineties, but it blended into the background for me at the time. I was already into Wilco, and Ryan Adams, and they were the flashier choices. Jay was under the radar.

This morning, I’m driving my son to school and nursing a ringing head from a late night of seeing Son Volt in concert in a small club, The Bluebird, in Bloomington, IN. We’re listening to that Terroir Blues CD that showed up in my stocking eight years ago. Needless to say, in the end, it was Farrar that lasted, as far as what I return to again and again.

Bill Mallonee, another great American singer/songwriter, and friend has said on several occasions that Farrar’s genius lies in his poetry and his distinct voice that communicates a deep and real experience. Jay Farrar is from the Midwest, Illinois originally, and now St. Louis. For years, though, he tore up the road, not only touring with his band, but also returning often to New Orleans. The result is that Farrar’s writing is distinctly Midwestern, but haunted by the South.

The other part of the story is his musical journey. As the story goes, Farrar’s first band, Uncle Tupelo began with a punk rock ethos, but the band decided that the most punk rock thing to do would be to play country music. This still shows through genuinely in his live show. Pedal steel, mandolin, guitar, bass, drums, harmonies, but turned up to eleven and delivered without flashiness or bombast. Farrar doesn’t try to convince you to like him or buy his records. The showmanship is the music, the songs, the communication. It’s not an approach that’s going to fill stadiums or win Grammy awards. It’s an approach that almost demands a relatively small room, and more than a few listens to sink in. It invites relationship with the words; it shares and presents but does not force or sell. It’s the long approach of a life lived with pauses and restarts, travel and home.

It’s the kind of thing a poet would recognize, and I’m glad she did.