Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and Varnaline’s Anders Parker are often mistaken for alt.country purists, but ossified historical societies would likely deny them membership. The two leading men have now joined forces as Gob Iron (British slang for harmonica) and issued Death Songs for the Living, a collection of rustic instrumentals and “traditional” songs from the American songbook that includes the Reverend J.M. Gates’ “Death’s Black Train Is Coming,” Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” and a slew of Stanley Brothers tunes. Except the duo took a few, ah, liberties.
“With ‘Hard Times,’” explains Farrar, “I was really going off the title, and I wrote different lyrics and a different melody. ‘Silicosis Blues’ was subject matter from one song and a melody from another, and then I wrote stuff to hold them together. It’s assimilating different elements and trying to make something out of it and put your own stamp on it. I’m sure that’s how a lot of old blues and country came together.”
The songs were recorded quickly and without much discussion over about five days at Farrar’s rehearsal/recording studio in St. Louis. “I think we were familiar enough with each other’s work that we trusted where it would go,” says Farrar. “It was just instinctive. We didn’t have to put a lot of planning into it.”
The nine instrumentals that unite the tracks weren’t planned at all. “We just set the tape rolling. One person would start with a finger-picking pattern or a riff and we recorded a couple hours of that and picked the parts we liked.”
The easy, naturalist approach was the only way for these two musicians to work. “Some engineers have said … that younger bands, when they’re listening back to a take, they go over to the ProTools screen and watch it on a screen as opposed to just sitting back and listening to what’s coming out of the speakers,” Farrar pauses. “It’s a different approach.”
And not likely an approach Farrar or Parker will be attempting anytime soon: “It takes out anomalies,” Farrar says, “and takes out the excitement and makes it homogenous.”