- Photo provided by the band
If you've paid attention to the trajectory of the Belleville, Illinois-bred bluegrass band Old Salt Union, it's easy to think of the band's rise as stratospheric. Certainly the five-piece went from playing basements and 100-person rooms to bigger halls and festival stages alongside some of the heroes of the folk and roots community.
For bassist Jesse Farrar, though, the road to acclaim came one step at a time. "I think initially it happened quick, which made us decide to quit our jobs and chase this," Farrar says. "But after some important steps, everything has been kind of a slow grind. [F]or us, we're chasing the next thing. When an opportunity presents itself, we can jump at it."
Earlier this year the band took one such leap and grabbed a crucial brass ring, signing with well-respected roots label Compass Records. Upon signing, label owners Alison Brown and Garry West encouraged the group to release something with relative quickness, so as to better introduce the band to a national audience. So while Old Salt Union has a bevy of new material ready to record, this self-titled release comprises some of its best-loved songs, only this time re-recorded in Nashville with Brown in the producer's chair.
Brown is an accomplished banjo player, having backed up Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked as well as releasing her own, wide-ranging albums that stretch the usual limits of bluegrass and folk music. Her input helped the band rework some older songs for the new package.
"She's played everything that you can possibly play in our genre of music," Farrar says of Brown. "What we did do was sit down in a room and just play. She'd be there with us and be playing with us. She'd start offering input with new ideas and new directions. It was like a sixth member of the band that didn't have any attachment to the tunes — I think that's important."
Opening track "This Is Where I Stand" highlights Old Salt Union's use of studio dynamics without sacrificing the group's by-now intrinsic sense of harmony and locked-in rhythms. Farrar kicks off the song with a soulful, lonesome howl, surrounded only by John Brighton's keening fiddle. By the time the rest of the band kicks in, the tension has been established and the rest of the song seeks to release it. The song is one of the band's oldest, and in this context Old Salt Union is able to dissect its components and crack open its meaning.
For Farrar, it was Brown's detachment that helped breathe new life into the well-worn tunes.
"We kind of get stuck in our own mode, you know," Farrar says. "She helped us think of new ideas. We would all sit in a room and play and wait 'til we got a good take." Farrar notes that Compass Studios is the former home of Glaser Brothers Productions, and was known as "Hillbilly Central" for hosting sessions with outlaw country legends such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
"John Hartford recorded there," Farrar notes. "We were in good company."
The band will spend much of the rest of 2017 on the road — especially now that festival season is in full swing — but while Old Salt Union will be released nationally on July 21, St. Louis fans have a chance to get first crack at it. The band will perform a release show at Atomic Cowboy this week; all tickets come with a free copy of the album.
Farrar says that the show is a bit of a "thank you" to Old Salt Union's hometown audience as the band prepares to take on the rest of the country. He relates a lesson explained to him by Compass Records co-owner Garry West: That this album is to introduce Old Salt Union to a wider audience, and that its current fans will make up only 25 percent of their eventual base.
"We knew that a lot of the people at home had heard these songs before," says Farrar. "This album is for the other 75 percent of people that don't know us yet."
This week's show, though, is for the core of music lovers who have supported the band from its infancy in Belleville basements and dives.
"It was important for us to thank the fans for supporting us for so long," says Farrar. "It's crazy how great music fans in St. Louis are."