Country music for people who hate country

Alex LaSalle

It would be easy to label Son Volt as country music, but doing so would be a terrible way to describe them to a friend. Alt-country? Folk? Americana?

What Son Volt is not is the country music you hear on the radio. The band–led by singer, songwriter and guitarist Jay Farrar since its founding in 1994–is the polar opposite of mainstream Nashville-bred country music. It’s worked well for Farrar and company.

In place of smoothly produced songs about pickup trucks, farms and country music itself, there are rough songs about more introspective topics. Instead of a smooth and clear southern drawl, Farrar sings like he’s had a couple of beers and is aiming to have a few more.

The so-called “Bakersfield Sound,” which originated decades ago in Bakersfield, CA, is the prominent sound through “Honky Tonk,” Son Volt’s 7th album. It’s a successful mix of guitar, fiddle and a sweet-as-tea pedal steel guitar, all on display with the upbeat two-step of opening track “Hearts and Minds.” It’s relaxed without ever descending into melodrama.

This is the kind of music you hear in movies whenever the scene takes place in a half-empty bar on the side of a southwestern highway.

Son Volt’s version of Bakersfield is relaxed and easy-going and it works for them. This is good, considering they went so far as naming one of the tracks “Bakersfield,” a bouncy tune with touches of a bright electric guitar.

For all the strong points of Son Volt’s sound on “Honky Tonk,” the one glaring weakness is that they never really take any risks with it. The album is almost too consistent with few breaks from tempo or easy-going melodies, and Farrar’s voice never moves away from a half-sober, melancholy drone. You can easily get lost on the back half.

“Honky Tonk” is the soundtrack to having a few beers – no hard liquor here – with friends in an empty bar or on a front porch. It’s enjoyable and it’s easy, but it never challenges you.