Every blues musician requires an origin story. A creation myth. Robert Connely Farr’s begins as follows:
With the guitar his mother bought him after he got out of drug rehab a young man leaves his home in Bolton, Mississippi and travels as far west as he can. When he hits the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean he takes a hard right at the western crossroads and eventually crosses the northern border into Canada in search of Cuban cigars. Deciding to settle in Vancouver he forms a band called Mississippi Live and The Dirty Dirty and on the urging of then bandmate Ben Yardley (who later goes on to form the unstoppable hard rock outfit La Chinga) he starts writing original songs that draw from his Americana roots and the southern Muscle Shoals blood coursing through his veins. He puts out three full length albums as Mississippi Live And The Dirty Dirty to great critical acclaim over a five year period establishing his place in the musical community. Then three years ago on southern road trip with his father something happens that changes Connely’s course dramatically. He remembers hearing about an old juke joint, the Blue Front Cafe, in Bentonia, Mississippi and they decide to swing by and take some pictures. When we spoke recently via Zoom he elaborated,
“I always thought it was probably an old building that was boarded up or something but when we got there and the front door was open and I just thought I gotta go in. It was a cinderblock room probably about 20’ by 60’ and there were all these old guitars hanging on the wall and Jimmy (Jimmy “Duck” Holmes) was standing behind the counter. There was nobody else in there. We started talking and I asked him if he played music and if he’d play me a song. He said sure and sat down and played an old song by Henry Stuckey called Devil Got My Woman. It just floored me. Something shifted right then. Even my dad felt it—later on that night he joked, “You had to go all the way to Canada just to find yourself back home.”
I’m the first to admit I know very little about the blues. I can quickly recognize a twelve bar progression and I’m familiar with name Robert Johnson but aside from that my knowledge is minimal. The Bentonia style of blues is dark haunting music played in open minor tunings that hangs on one chord and creates an expansive twilight space that’s easy to get lost in. I remember the first time I heard Ode To The Lonesome from Connely’s first Bentonia influenced album Dirty South Blues and thinking it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It hit with the heaviness of Swans (if Michael Gira had grown up in Alabama) and possesses the simple droning beauty of Brian Eno’s atmospheric masterpieces. But these broad comparisons are wildly insufficient to capture the tone and emotional resonance of Connely’s performance.
Dirty South Blues proved to be just a taster of things to come. In 2019 Connely traveled south with drummer Jay Johnson and bassist Tom Hillifer to play at the Bentonia blues festival and embed themselves into the Bentonia lineage. Much of that lineage originates from the legendary but unrecorded Henry Stuckey who schooled both the late Jack Owens and Connely’s mentor (and Blue Front Cafe owner) Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. For a town of merely 2,000 residents Bentonia’s musical impact is impressive and enduring. Connely described playing at the festival as “going back to the well and having a few drinks” and upon their return they immediately went into Vancouver’s famed Hipposonic Studio to record the songs that would compose the Country Supper album released in 2020. As if to add another level of mythology to this creation story the day before Connely went into the studio he was forced to face his own mortality when doctors told him he had cancer and needed surgery. That internal struggle is particularly evident on his song I Ain’t Dying a defiant declaration that opens with the line, “Don’t need nobody to tell me what’s wrong with me.”, growling over the droning beauty of his distorted guitar. Maybe it was the immediacy of the recording or the cancer but the sense of raw emotional urgency in Robert Connely Farr’s voice is visceral. Its deep tenor is commanding and makes every word count.
Country Supper is an apt title for the album. It’s an immensely satisfying blend of original songs mixed with Bentonia classics like the album opener Skip James’s “Cypress Grove”. In this rendition the space between the beats becomes as important as the instruments themselves. The band has a natural aptitude for eliminating clutter and leaving only the important elements. Connely speaks of his bandmates with reverence,
“I can’t impress enough how Jay and Tom and John Wood are part of the culling out of the things that are unnecessary for the songs. That’s the beauty of it. You can take a guy from Mississippi but it doesn’t work unless I have this group of guys with me.”
The versatility of his band shines on this album from the driving dirge of Train Train to the hard hitting dirty groove of Leo Bud Welch’s Girl In The Holler. They are locked together in the constant push and pull of the beat. Nothing is superfluous—there are no sweet shiny candy bits. These songs possess an undercurrent of ferocity that surges just below the surface. An element of danger that rises to bare its teeth as a reminder of the strength and resilience at the core.
One of the most moving songs on the album is the closer “I Know I’ve Been Changed”. A beautiful spiritual testament written by the legendary LaShun Pace. Connely’s performance is sincere and powerful.
“With all that’s been going on with me I’ve found solace in the music of Leo Bud Welch and the Reverend John Wilkins and even Skip James was preacher. I grew up in the Methodist church and when I left the church I did a complete 180 on religion. But finding solace in that spiritual music again when I hadn’t felt it in so long was really special for me. I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian or a member of a church but that’s what’s so powerful about music. Particularly this rural obscure style of blues is rooted in the pain of the people who made it. The music itself became a source of musical comfort for them and it did for me too this year. So I wanted to put that on the album because it helped me. It ain’t never bad to sneak a little Jesus in on people.”
Connely recently had a third surgery and subsequently received a clean bill of health from his doctors and on Valentine’s Day of this year he dropped his latest single Ain’t Enough.
“They told me I had to have surgery again…and I’m always writing songs but I hadn’t picked up my guitar in a while. I just sat down on the couch with my guitar and that bed track, the guitar and vocals, it just came out. I tried rerecording it but it didn’t have the same emotion. I sat on it for a few weeks and then I sent it to the studio and John worked it up.”
The result is a powerful heartfelt plea for connection at a time when physical and cultural isolation is a weight felt by everyone. These daily struggles of life—the burden of loneliness—the unavoidable nature of mortality— the blues mythologies are allegories for life’s struggles and the music is the anodyne. Robert Connely Farr is fully aware that redemption is always just a chord or two away and when he sings we can all feel a little less alone.
“Gimme a good memory
Gimme a hug of my friends
Gimme playing a God damn show in the shittiest bar I’ve ever been in.”
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Find Cadillac Problems on our Indie Rock & Alternative Playlist Autumn/Fall 2020 on YouTube