When you come from Bolton, MS (pop. 567), the blues is in your DNA. Indeed, it’s the same place that gave the world Charley Patton, Bo Carter, Sam Chatmon and others who, it could be argued, established the blues as a distinct genre during the early part of the 20th century. The spirit of those artists—along with more recent practitioners such as R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes—is ingrained in the sound of Robert Connely Farr.
On his 11th album, Pandora Sessions, singer/guitarist Robert channels the raw energy of Delta blues like never before with 13 songs recorded with his longtime collaborator Jay Bundy Johnson on drums. Unlike their previous work together, Robert approached Pandora Sessions as a clean slate, coming up with new material on the fly in order to convey a sense of spontaneity, as those a century ago often did when putting tracks on wax.
The process was aided by Robert’s early interest in writing poetry and haikus, which led him to discover rap music, particularly artists adept at freestyling. He revisited that approach on many of the songs on Pandora Sessions, such as “Jackson Town,” “Night Train,” “Prowler,” “How Am I,” “Things They Tellin’ You,” “Train Keep Rollin” and “Oh Lord,” all of which rumble with the mystic power all the great Delta blues artists seemed to possess.
Perhaps surprisingly, Robert has been making all of this gritty blues from his adopted home base, Vancouver BC, where he’s lived for over a decade after studying architecture at Auburn University and working at an Alabama non-profit animal shelter. A friend in Seattle introduced Robert to Vancouver’s charms, prompting him to make the move.
It wasn’t until he was settled in Canada that Robert considered making music in the tradition of his home state, a revelation he says occurred during a trip back to Mississippi in 2017 to visit his ailing father. One day, they took a road trip through Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Indianola and Yazoo City, ending up at Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes’ juke joint in Bentonia, where he quickly started learning from the master.
There’s no doubt that Robert does Mississippi proud with Pandora Sessions, on which the juke joint vibes are palpable, from Robert’s fuzzy growl to the sultry grooves he and Johnson lock into. The album also continues Robert’s prodigious output since he survived a cancer scare in 2020. Once recovered from emergency surgery, he released five albums in rapid succession, including the internationally acclaimed Country Supper and Shake It, along with Cherry Ball, recorded live at Vancouver’s Fox Theatre. Robert’s songs have also been heard in the television shows Snowpiercer, Resident Alien and Reacher, and he’s received Maple Blues Award nominations for Songwriter of the Year and New Artist of the Year.
Now with Pandora Sessions, Robert is kicking off 2024 in fine fashion, while continuing to carry on the tradition of the artists who laid the foundation for rock and roll. You can get Robert Connely Farr’s Pandora Sessions, along with the rest of his catalogue from his Bandcamp page, or via robertconnelyfarr.com.
Your new album Pandora Sessions sounds very raw and live. Was there a specific creative spark that got you to make it?
My drummer Jay Bundy Johnson, who’s also played with Billy Cowsill, The Blue Shadows and Herald Nix, actually came up with the idea. We’d been having a series of really great jam sessions that I was recording on my iPhone. All these new songs kept coming up and we’d just been down to the Bentonia Blues Festival in Mississippi and got to play with Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes and RL Boyce, who sadly passed away since then. Playing in Bentonia is kind of crazy, because you don’t know what gear is going to be there, if there will be sound, if the performers will be drunk — but there will be music! And a lot of those songs are made up on the fly, and it’s incredible to witness the vibe.
So Jay suggested mic’ing our jam space for a few days and seeing what happens. Pandora Sessions came from that. And I think those sessions, the rawness and live discrepancies, are all a reflection of that Bentonia experience.
I was nervous to release this album, as it’s not recorded by a big team in a famous studio, and the songs weren’t written prior, but when we started mixing, there was an energy and feel that was undeniable. This album, by far, has been the one that’s generated the most fan support right off the bat. It’s been really cool to have so many people commenting and reaching out. I totally didn’t expect it.
You’ve been highly prolific over the past few years. Are you always working on new material?
Always. If I’m awake, I’m scheming on new material, or reinventing old material. I keep a recorder on when I’m playing, as the songs come quickly these days. The Pandora Sessions songs were so much fun because most of that material wasn’t written — we used the sessions to come up with the songs — so what you hear is what we got.
You learned to play blues directly from some great Mississippi artists. Has that made you more conscious of staying true to that sound when you’re writing songs and recording?
It’s made me very conscious of trying to stay true to certain aspects of the music of my home. My goal is to be a good ambassador for my state, to try to edify the music of my home and the artists that inspire and teach me. But at the same time, Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes has been a huge inspiration for me to find my own sound, not to just regurgitate what he’s taught me but to use the Bentonia Style as a foundation to build my sound on. One day after I played a set at his juke joint, I had played “Catfish” wrong, and I mentioned to Jimmy that I messed it up. He dug his finger into my chest, cocked his head, looked me in the eye and said, “You ain’t gonna play like Skip [James], you ain’t gonna play like Jack [Owens] or me, you got to go find your own sound — THAT’S WHAT PEOPLE ARE GONNA FEEL!” I’ll never forget that.
Some people might be surprised that your life journey brought you to Vancouver. How has the city been treating you?
I love this city. I’ve loved learning about it, watching it struggle and grow. I love how I ended up here, which was mostly through intuition, following a gut feeling. I ended up in a place that was far enough away from home to give me an incredibly unique perspective, one that I am grateful for. The worst thing about it is there ain’t no catfish, and I can’t drive home in a day. But I think it’s safe to say that East Van is stuck with this ol’ country boy!
As mentioned, you also remain a proud Mississippian. What are some misconceptions about the state that people who have never been there might have?
I think it’s safe to say that those misconceptions may not be wrong. The state has a bigoted Governor and politicians. Law enforcement, to this day, are as shady as ever. The capitol city is literally in shambles, with millions of welfare dollars stolen by some of the state’s wealthiest. Not to mention its history with slavery and its Indigenous peoples. It’s got a bad reputation.
But there is beauty; beauty in the resilience of its peoples, the culture, the food, the decay that speaks to the death of an Old South and the hope for a new one.
One of the things that has given me so much inspiration over the last 10 years is personally witnessing how the music that happens in Bentonia, as a result of Jimmy keeping his juke joint the Blue Front Cafe and the Bentonia Blues Festival going. The result is a beautiful community of all races, genders, from literally all over the world, coming together for the music — a music that was in its roots — that remains a source of spirituality and communication for the Civil Rights battle that is going to this day. It’s powerful to see music [helping] people get together and heal.