If the music world had its own Olympics, the flag-bearers marching in front of the alt-country team would probably be Wilco's formidable Jeff Tweedy and the sometimes likeable, always beguiling Ryan Adams.
But while those two have undeniably spearheaded (if not mainstreamed) a genre that was cultivated by folks like Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt years ago, there is a third, slightly more anonymous teammate who should be by their side.
No, it's not Rhett Miller. The Old 97's frontman is certainly a valued member of the squad, but he hangs out a bit too much with the pop-music kids to warrant captain status. Rather, the unsung hero and deserved third standard-bearer is Jay Farrar.
Sure, Farrar is an established brand in music circles. But the name doesn't hold much currency with the average person on the street. Nonetheless, while Farrar may not fill out the critical-darling stat sheet like Tweedy and Adams (or possess the same untenable coifs and hipster fashion sense), he is a proven alt-country archetype.
Once upon a time (say, '87 to '94), it was Tweedy playing McCartney to Farrar's Lennon in Uncle Tupelo. The Illinois band was so seminal to the evolution of alt-country that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone even using the term “alt-country” prior to the group's formation. Hell, the magazine dedicated to the genre (No Depression) conjured its moniker in reverence of Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut.
Inevitably, Uncle Tupelo was too dynamic—and the relationship between Tweedy and Farrar too tumultuous—to survive. But when Tweedy left to form Wilco, Farrar countered with the just-as-potent-but-less-glitzy Son Volt. Wilco have ascended to a state of perpetual critical reverence while the on-again, off-again Son Volt has issued a series of challenging albums that have been met with mixed opinions.
Some trumpet the band as a worthy echo of Uncle Tupelo; others consider its material less amiable, and accessible, than its predecessor. Either way, the impact of Son Volt has resonated by helping spawn a new generation of alt-country team members like Limbeck and Neko Case.
But that's hardly where Farrar's credentials stop. He's unleashed four solo efforts and even formed another group (Gob Iron) that released its first album, Death Songs for the Living, at the end of 2006. These days, the floppy-haired, fuzzy-chinned troubadour rotates between going it alone and heading up a revamped Son Volt.
Farrar's solo material veers down the experimental path with no overseers demanding any continuity or familiarity. Conversely, Son Volt still brings the spurs-and-boots, even though the band's latest effort, The Search, flirted with straight-up rock 'n' roll, or at least the kind of folk-rock conjured by Tom Petty or Paul Westerberg on his best days.
The Search even delivers an infectious, horn-laden number called “The Picture” that brings to mind The Rolling Stones when Keith, Mick and company delved into the country-blues realm for tunes like “Brown Sugar” and “Honky Tonk Woman.”
So, with that kind of résumé, why is Farrar not an obvious choice to be waving that flag alongside Tweedy and Adams?
The honest answer is that he's not as varied, or vibrant, as either. His somewhat undeserved reputation for often being sullen and aloof hasn't earned him many admirers, either. He can do introspection, but his soul-baring doesn't punch you in the gut with the same kind of force as Adams and Tweedy. Farrar can do upbeat, but his tracks often aren't as accessible or catchy as those produced by Adams and Tweedy.
But these criticisms don't, in any way, mean that Farrar doesn't belong in the alt-country Holy Trinity. His songs can take you to places that neither Adams nor Tweedy dare to venture. Farrar may not be as immediate or polished, but he's a repeat-listen guy. Each time you hear a track, something else grabs your attention and, before you know it, you're spending hours on iTunes scouring for every song he's ever written.
Farrar has something to say and—through all his incredibly relevant collaborative and solo incarnations—people still want to listen. Tweedy and Adams may be the ones that grab the alt-country spotlight, but Farrar is the guy doing all the dirty work necessary to keep the team—and the music—together. Jay Farrar performs at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, at Belly Up Tavern, 143 S Cedros Ave., in Solana Beach. 858-481-8140. www.jayfarrar.net.