There are days when Vancouver’s Robert Connely Farr can’t believe how much he misses the American South—a place that shaped him profoundly as a child, and proved completely revelatory in adulthood.
“It’s been one of the hardest things,” says the East Van–based blues musician, on his cell during a break from his day job at a Lower Mainland architectural firm. “Ever since I’ve been here, the thing that I’ve tried to reconcile within myself is my decision to leave home. I miss my family, and I love where I’m from. But I can also be critical of it, and that shit don’t fly too well down there. So it becomes one of those things of ‘Where do you fit in?’ ”
The degree to which Farr is conflicted is obvious on his stunner of a new release, Dirty South Blues. While he loves home, that doesn’t stop him from examining its darker side. Witness the greasy title track, where over shimmering organ and distortion-swirl guitar, he sings “Take me back to the dirty south lord/Where the devil makes his whiskey and the crosses burn lord.”
The full-length basically pulls off the near impossible, namely making a white guy sound like he was raised in a rusty-tin-and-tarpaper shack a stone’s throw from Robert Johnson’s fabled crossroads. Farr delivers the blues at its most meditative and swampy on “Ode to the Lonesome”, drips Muscle Shoals sweat on the soulful “Blue Front Cafe”, and wrings every bit of black-hearted pain out of the ghostly “Cypress Tree Blues”.
If the singer-guitarist seems like an emissary from a rawer and more primal time, that’s not by accident. Well into adulthood, he became obsessed with what’s known as the Bentonia blues, thanks to a friendship with Mississippi cult fave Jimmy “Duck” Holmes—who schooled him well on the power of minor tones and downtuning.
But coming from a decidedly nonmusical family, Farr first loved hard-rock giants like Kiss and Guns ’N Roses. When you grow up in the church—which is pretty much the case for most of the South—you sometimes need an outlet.
Joking that he relocated to Vancouver because it doesn’t have a church on every second corner, Farr, who was raised in Bolton, Mississippi, as a Methodist, says: “I was obsessed with music from the time that I could listen to music. One of my first cassettes was Bryan Adams. But I also liked Kiss—I had, like, 20 Kiss tapes. My mom was like, ‘That’s not fucking cool.’ I got really into anything that was rock ’n’ roll—Guns ’N Roses, Ratt, Poison—anything that the church didn’t like.”
Farr later went all-in on grunge titans like Nirvana, and then had his world-view altered by southern-rock deconstructionists the Drive-By Truckers. After dabbling in the six-string as a teen, he embraced it big-time in college in Raymond, Mississippi, after deciding to take a classical-guitar class.
“This guy in Raymond was running a record shop in an old railroad station that had been closed down,” Farr recalls. “I went in there and went, ‘I just got this acoustic guitar—what do you suggest that I listen to to learn to play it?’ He said, ‘Neil Young. Decade.’ Man, that thing didn’t leave my tape deck for a year. You can play any song on that double album, and I’ll tell you what comes right after it. It was pivotal.”
Moving across the continent after graduating from college with an architectural degree wasn’t something he intended to do.
“I came to see a friend in Washington, and thought I’d cruise up here to meet some Cuban cigars,” he says. “I met a girl, came up a couple of times, and was like, ‘Fuck, man—this is where I’m living.’ I’m not going to bullshit you—I didn’t even know Vancouver was up here. The girl that I met showed me the North Shore, we hung out on Main Street. There was snow, and the beach, and I was like, ‘Fuck—are you kidding me?’ ”
After settling in Vancouver, Farr slowly began integrating himself into the local music community, soaking up an appreciation for blues pioneers like Willie Dixon from Jim Byrnes. Working with roots vet Jon Wood under the banner Mississippi Live & the Dirty Dirty, he made a series of records that straddled southern rock and outlaw country, including 2009’s Mississippi Live and 2015’s Going Down. (Playing with Farr and Wood in the band today are bassist Tom Hillifer and drummer Jay B. Johnson.)
It was a trip back home that would finally set him on the throwback-blues path he’s on today.
“In the early part of 2017 I got a call telling me that my dad’s cancer had come back,” he relates. “They were like, ‘You need to come home right now.’ I jumped on a plane, went home the next morning, and by the time I got there the doctor was like, ‘Um, we made a mistake. Your dad’s looking pretty good.’ ”
Still, that provided some valuable time for reconnecting with family. One afternoon, after getting some barbecue, Farr decided to show his father the Blue Front Cafe, a historic, ramshackle Bentonia, Mississippi, juke joint (run for decades by Holmes’s family) that had always fascinated him.
“I’d been taking pictures of it since I was in high school—it’s such a beautiful building in this small town,” he says. “The door was open that day, so I stuck my head in to look around and see what was inside, ’cause I’d never been in. Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes was sitting inside, and he said, ‘Can I help you?’ We got to talking, and I told him that I was from Vancouver, Canada. He said, ‘I’m coming up there this summer to do a show.’ He then played me and my dad a song—‘Devil Got My Woman’—and it just floored me. That’s what started all this.
“I went home four times that year,” Farr continues. “Every time I went home, I’d go see Jimmy and he would show me something. I’d come back here and try to dissect what I’d learned. It was crazy the way it hit. It was like, ‘This is what I need to do.’ It felt so natural. I went home and did a show for him at the Blue Front Cafe for New Year’s. The day before the show I was over at his place playing something for him, and he was like, ‘I can’t show you anything else. You know how to do this, Connely. But you aren’t going to do it like me, you aren’t going to do it like Skid James, and you’re not going to do it like Jack Owens. You got to go do it the way you’re going to do it.’ ”
Farr did exactly that when he decamped to Lethbridge, Alberta, to make Dirty South Blues with outlaw-country artist and producer Leeroy Stagger. After working the songs out with Wood and his regular bandmates in Vancouver, he arrived in the studio well aware of what he wanted to accomplish: namely, making a record that was authentically retro in the Bentonia-blues style. Accompanied by crack players assembled by Stagger, Farr delivered a collection that’s all about grit, mud, and downbeat, 2-a.m.-in-the-moonlight majesty, rather than polish and flash.
Dirty South Blues is made, lovingly, for the juke joints of Mississippi—the only things missing are a plate of pecan-smoked barbecue, a pack of Marlboros, and a half-gone bottle of Cody Road bourbon. Farr might be based in Vancouver these days, but he’s made a stunner of an album that, above all, sounds like the place that he’s proud to be from.
“I was down playing Jimmy’s Bentonia Blues Festival last year, and he comes up to me after the set, puts his arms around me, and says, ‘When you are here, you are home. You are family,’ ” Farr says. “There’s this barrier that really breaks down through music. That’s what I love about old juke joints. You walk in and they are 50-50 black and white. Music is the common denominator, and it’s beautiful.” g
Mississippi Live & the Dirty Dirty (fronted by songwriter Robert Connely Farr) play the WISE Hall with Trailer Hawk on Saturday (January 19).