In a time of deep divisions, Son Volt bandleader Jay Farrar still believes music can heal and inspire.
“My wife pointed out a Bertolt Brecht quote to me,” Farrar said. “ ‘In dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.’ You’ve got to keep doing what you do. For me, that’s writing songs and moving forward.”
Farrar hasn’t stopped moving long enough to ponder the 25th anniversary of his acclaimed Americana band, Son Volt. He formed the band in 1994, following the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, the groundbreaking alt-country group he’d led with Jeff Tweedy, who later founded Wilco.
“I haven’t thought about that much, but I will now,” Farrar said after being reminded of the anniversary.
In March, Son Volt released “Union,” its ninth album. Farrar anticipates including a half-dozen songs from the social consciousness-filled opus during Son Volt’s performance Saturday, June 22, at the inaugural Bandito Fest in downtown Baton Rouge.
Along with Son Volt, Bandito Fest's alt-country and Americana lineup includes the Old 97’s, Shooter Jennings, The Bottle Rockets and area bands Hitchhiker and Grinders. And food vendors will be slinging barbecue and tacos throughout the day.
“Union” combines Farrar’s world-weary, whine-and-growl vocals and signature Americana sound with the most topical songs he’s composed since 2005’s George Bush-era “Okemah and the Melody of Riot.”
“I see ‘Union’ as a companion piece to ‘Okemah and the Melody Riot,’ ” Farrar said. “But this time I set about focused on what you could call protest music. It’s part of the job, the tradition of the bard.”
Farrar grew up hearing folk and protest songs — often one and the same — by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. He further embraced the often political music of The Clash and other punk-rock groups.
“There’s always been that thread in my writing,” he said.
The album’s title song addresses class and political divides in resigned but not totally hopeless tones..
“A song like ‘Union’ is an acknowledgment of how there are so many forces dividing our country,” Farrar said. “Let’s get back to where we were before.”
Farrar began composing “Union” in December 2016. During that year’s presidential election, Farrar recalled, “(Donald) Trump promised to blow up norms and institutions. But I don’t think the people who voted for him thought those norms and institutions were elements of democracy. At least that’s my interpretation.”
The new album’s topical songs include “Reality Winner,” a song inspired by the former Air Force linguist and intelligence contractor who mailed a government report about a Russian cyberattack to a news outlet. In 2018, a federal judge sentenced Winner to five years and three months in prison.
“I found her story compelling,” Farrar said. “The least I could do was write a song to let others know about her.”
Another “Union” song, “The Symbol,” portrays a Mexican construction worker who helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “Now there’s fear,” Farrar sings in first-person. “Angry words saying ‘Go.’ They say I’m a criminal.”
Although musicians who mix politics with art risk alienating members of their audience, Farrar believes his listeners won’t hear anything shocking in his new songs.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he added. “I’m just putting ideas out there for discussion.”
About midway through writing his “Union” songs, Farrar moved to personal subjects. The joyful “Devil May Care” expresses his love of playing music through Dylan-esque verses and country-rock music. “The Reason,” another song based on his life, “touches on the ambivalence of watching one’s kids set out as adults, knowing the trials and adventures they’ll face,” he said.
In the 2010s, Farrar released three albums and published his memoir, “Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs.” This year’s current events-inspired “Union” follows 2017’s blues-bent “Notes of Blue” and 2013’s classic country-based “Honky Tonk.”
“It reaches a point where you turn back to that elemental music,” Farrar explained. “George Jones recordings with the double fiddles influenced ‘Honky Tonk.’ The blues tunes of Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James influenced ‘Notes of Blue.’ That’s haunting stuff.”
6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 22
Bandito Fest at Galvez Plaza, downtown Baton Rouge
Free; $100 VIP tickets