“Pushing Back at Authority”: Son Volt, and the Power of Protest Music

The new Son Volt record, Electro Melodier, is the best collection of protest songs and political songwriting in so many years that a precise qualifier is nearly impossible to offer. It is far easier to leave it at “in recent memory.” In 2019, the rock and roll/alternative country band released Union, a sonic blast of rage emanating out the American heartland, and giving aggressive rebuke to the xenophobic and oligarchic policies of the Trump administration, along with the freakshow of neo-fascism that enabled them. Bringing their signature sound of heart-melting Americana and Crazy Horse-inspired rock to the American scene of corruption and cruelty, Son Volt plugged its instruments into the amplifiers of nostalgia, turning up the volume on protest anthems and political ballads in the plainspoken, but poetic; tender, but muscular style and spirit of the 1960s. Jay Farrar, singer and songwriter for the band, recorded his guitar and vocal tracks for Union at the Mother Jones Museum in Mt. Olive, Illinois, and the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Calling on those ghosts again, Farrar asks in “Living in the USA,” the best song on Electro Melodier, “Where’s the heart from days of old?” His further inquiry, sung in the plaintive, honest, and intimate voice of a long-lost friend, provides clarity into the target of his political and emotional scavenger hunt: “Where’s the empathy? Where’s the soul?” Closing the chorus with, “Living in the USA…” leaves the listener with a sociocultural mystery. Do those words form a question or an answer?

Great art eschews the easy solution and the quick fix. Son Volt’s new music is no exception to the rule. Like all brilliant artists, Farrar doesn’t conceal the complexity and contradictions of his subject matter. He spotlights them. Depending on when and how he enunciates the phrase, “Living in the USA,” it can act as ridicule to an Empire in decay, unable to enforce its foundational rhetoric of freedom and equality, or as a declaration of hope – the hope that lives in the streets, the organizer meetings, the ballot box, the picket line, the pipeline protest, and every site of combative action against injustice.

The songs of Electro Melodier, with their delicate balance of rage and hope, and despair and optimism, perfectly capture the contemporary political reality of converging crises and opportunities. To close the first verse of “Living in the USA,” Farrar in one of the many unforgettable lines of the album, sings, “Share a little truth with your neighbor down the block / We’ve all got fossil fuel lungs while we run out the clock…”

With democracy facing an unprecedented threat from the American Reich, and the planet transforming into a vast desert, Farrar has summoned his intelligence, artistry, and bandmates to “share a little truth.”

The album opens with “Reverie” – a joyful declaration of faith in the eternal power of music, literature, and creative insight to withstand the mindless pressures of the market, and its attendant tools of demolition. Ebullient and defiant rock and roll gives propulsive backing to Farrar’s assertion of a personal and professional creed: “The system grinds dreams to dirt / But truth walks naked upon the earth.”

An abiding belief in justice, happiness, knowledge, and all the good things, even in the fangs of stupidity and oppression, gives Electro Melodier its musical and lyrical heartbeat.

In a short email exchange, Farrar told me that writing song acts as an “outlet to make sense of what’s being observed around you.” Citing Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and The Clash as instructive examples, he applies his political sensibility and social conscience to music. He went on to explain that “the pandemic was an undercurrent” for Son Volt’s new music, “along with the belief that better days are ahead.”

On “The Globe,” Son Volt broadcasts more rollicking enthusiasm, and with a powerful beat and infectious melody, precisely locates the source of their belief in better days:

International power
Of people all around the globe
We’re really all the same
We think global and stake that claim
You can see it on the street
Pushing back at authority

When I asked Farrar to give his interpretation of what makes a great protest song, he answered with the phrase, “universality of experience.” He then explained that when writing “The Globe,” he dwelled upon how the “protestors for freedoms in Belarus are kindred souls with the Black Lives Matter protestors in the United States.” “I don’t know if ‘The Globe’ is a good song,” he added with modesty, “But it sure feels good to sing.”

It feels good to hear. It is especially refreshing to the ear and intellect, given that outside the important, but narrow confines of racial and gender politics, protest art has all but disappeared from the American mainstream. Even during the four years of the continuous Trump-led massacre of human rights, ecology, and democratic norms, few singers released protest music or expressed political positions, save for generic endorsements of the Biden-Harris ticket, and even fewer joined activists in the street. When I asked Farrar for his explanation of why protest music is a rarity on the airwaves or YouTube, he left no room for interpretation, giving a succinct summary of a widespread American pathology: “It doesn’t sell.”

Gore Vidal once wrote that the most genuine American artform is the advertisement, and historian Walter McDougall assessed the US as a “nation of hustlers.” The celebrity endorsement, acts of corporate capitulation, and product placement have become so ubiquitous that few cultural critics even bother to mention consumerism or commodification. “Sell out” has lost all meaning, as Douglas Rushkoff has shown that most teenagers interpret the derogation as a compliment. Even former songwriters of principle and political aggression are surrendering to the game, allowing themselves to become oversized versions of Monopoly board pieces. Before Bruce Springsteen appeared in a breathlessly idiotic and ill-advised Super Bowl commercial for Jeep, he told Rolling Stone that to write anti-Trump songs would be “the most boring thing in the world.”

Springsteen should speak for himself. Protest music isn’t boring coming from Son Volt. It wasn’t boring on Gov’t Mule’s magnificent 2017 record, Revolution Come…Revolution Go, and it wasn’t boring when Springsteen’s more brave and passionate former self wrote, “Born in the USA,” one of the most gut wrenching anti-war songs, and most misinterpreted, in rock and roll history. It is the Springsteen 1984 hit, from the album of the same name, and Neil Young’s ferocious classic, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” that informed Farrar when he wrote “Living in the USA.” “Both those songs were popular,” Farrar recalled when we exchanged emails, “but both contained incisive social commentary.” In the mid-1980s and early-90s, pop culture was sufficiently open and flexible for protest music to waft into homes and vehicles across the country. A songwriter with the gifts of Springsteen or Young could create songs that were commercial without sacrificing substance. It is in that bygone “thematic tradition,” to use Farrar’s words, that Son Volt has released “Living in the USA.” The song stands eye-to-eye with its towering company, emerging as the most memorable, moving, and thoughtful political anthem since Steve Earle’s 2002 single, “Amerika V. 6.0.” Like “Born in the USA,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” it employs patriotic language to explore the dark side of Disneyland, suburbia, and rule by the rich. Unlike those songs, however, it manages to mitigate righteous derision with enlistment in the ambition for people-powered revolution.

“War on Misery” acts as the perfect set up for “Living in the USA.” With slow, slide guitar blues, Farrar sings in mean growl, “I’ve been thinking it’s time to declare / From the rooftops and alley ways / Declare war on misery…” A couple minutes later “Living in the USA” begins with a strumming acoustic guitar, and in the best sense, creates space for an endlessly infectious melody. Farrar takes survey of the misery in the United States in Son Volt’s new anthem of Americana – condemning how “the rule of law is now up for sale / Wealth and privilege buy a ticket out of jail.” Charting the distance between the lofty rhetoric of democratic patriotism and the reality of life in the epicenter of inequality, Farrar sings that a “higher purpose walks these streets all around / In a sea of noise, it’s still there but tuned out.”

The hope of the song is weathered and hard-won. In the final verse, Son Volt balances that hope with the indefatigable presence of hope’s enemies, presenting a summary of the contemporary political struggle that is so poetic as to become stunning:

Dividers in the room riding platforms of fear
While rapid-fire hearts make way for tremolo tears
Charlatans will be deleted from our minds
Power invested in people, let the idea shine
Livin’ in the USA

Cancellation noise on a rolling review
With the marching drums of change
Gonna power through to you
Livin’ in the USA

Oblivious idealism never troubles the songs of Electro Melodier. There are plenty of reasons for anger and sadness, and Son Volt amplifies those emotions just as effectively as they inspire a fist in the air while marching along to the beat of the street. “Arkery Blue” forecasts the ecological doom of a runaway climate crisis, and in the process, maps the distance between an artist’s serious engagement with the catastrophes of his age, and what currently passes for substance in the mainstream. It is almost possible to hear the heart breaking when Farrar sings:

Who now speaks of the fires that ravaged towns
Boats cross the Arctic since glaciers melted down
Turbulent rains never before seen
Caused the floods that washed away dreams

Just as “Arkery Blue” gives a sonic blast to back the question, “Who now speaks” of man-made environmental disaster, “The Levee On Down” laments America’s inability to reckon with its own history of genocide and mass atrocity. About Andrew Jackson, Farrar sings with reference to the twenty-dollar bill on which he appears, “That dead president sent women and children to die / Just white man’s greed for land /With no regard for Cherokee lives.”

These aren’t songs fit for empty consumption, “memes,” or viral videos with women rapidly shaking their rear ends, and garishly dressed men throwing around currency advertising the face of a killer. They aren’t songs that will become background noise in a mindless commercial for perfume, pickup trucks, or pharmaceutical drugs. They are songs that, even while making for an enjoyable listening experience, challenge the most persistent and destructive myths of American arrogance.

Despite the surrounding disasters of neo-fascism, environmental destruction, and economic exploitation, Son Volt manifests the imperishable belief in democracy, giving powerful musical depiction of its utility for societal transformation. To add further to the artistic feat, they make the songs a pleasure to hear – perfect for listening on a long cruise down an open highway, or alone in a quiet room while contemplating the unsure future.

The record itself is an exercise of democracy, just as protest music is always – no matter how bitter or estranged – an act of hope. It requires belief in political speech, free expression, and the subtle subversion of creativity in the face of war, pollution, and other policies of death.

“What is the rebel?” Albert Camus asks in the opening pages of his book-length essay, The Rebel. “A man who says no,” he goes onto write, “but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion.” The rebel simultaneously rejects and affirms. With Electro Melodier, Son Volt has rejected mediocre commercialism, political complacency, and the cowardly withdrawal from politics on display throughout most of pop culture. They’ve also affirmed the possibility of authentic participatory democracy, artistry, and the songwriter’s thoughtful confrontation with the truth of his community and society.

The opening lines of the record’s first song, “Reverie,” announce a promise and, especially in troubled times, an essential service: “When you fade into a melody / Your mind is lost in reverie…”

David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (Bloomsbury, 2020).