In the bluegrass world where technical prowess is highly valued, stand-up bassist and vocalist Jesse Farrar of Old Salt Union believes songwriting actually trumps instrumental virtuosity.
Ironically, the band's new Compass Records album "Where the Dogs Don't Bite" was produced by label co-owner Alison Brown, known worldwide as a banjo prodigy.
WGLT caught up with Farrar via Skype ahead of the quintet’s show at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington on Friday night.
Farrar said the new album was their second working with Brown.
“We loved working with Alison on the first record,” said Farrar. “If it was up to us, we’d probably continue working with her down the line even if it wasn’t with Compass.”
The band appreciated the detached-from-the-band approach she brought to both albums and considered her the sixth full member of the band during recording.
“And as a six piece, we would decide on an arrangement and direction each song would go. She was a sixth member of the band, but one who didn’t have as much at stake. She could nix ideas or say some were cool and we could do the same. It was a very organic process,” said Farrar.
Working with a producer whose banjo chops are mentioned in the same rarified air as Bela Fleck might indicate the band values that virtuosic ethic over songwriting. Farrar said It’s not like the band eschews technical playing, matter of fact he hopes he brings some of that ethic he picked up as a jazz performance major at Eastern Illinois University to the band.
“Being comfortable as a musician shouldn’t almost ever happen,” said Farrar. “As long as we’re all getting better individually then the band will continuously get better and we’ll continue to have fun doing it.”
But he didn’t hesitate when asked how the importance of songwriting and storytelling fits into their priorities.
“I grew up in a songwriting family with my uncle Jay (Farrar of SonVolt fame). My dad’s a good songwriter, my grandfather was a songwriter, so for me, the songwriting is everything. I think it’s a 95% to 5% ratio. As long as you can play to get your point across in the song, I think that’s all that matters,” said Farrar.
He again reiterated the importance of the playing itself and gave props to some of the younger players tearing it up in the ongoing bluegrass resurgence. But still …
“I’m not going to berate or bash anybody, but there’s a lot of bands coming up over the last 10 years that are kind of going through the motions as far as songwriting and storytelling. They kind of sing about mountains and whiskey, almost like picking words out of a bluegrass hat and running with it. We like to take it a little deeper than that. There’s a reason we’re writing music, and that’s to tell a story,” said Farrar.
One of those stories on their new album is “Tell Me So.” According to band member Justin Wallace, it’s an old song idea producer Alison Brown lobbied the band to include on the album, even though the traditional sound is something Old Salt Union is consciously moving away from. When she suggested that perhaps label mate and 88-year-old bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne could guest on song, Farrar said band members were giddy.
“Bobby came to the studio and we sent him off with a song, not knowing if he would be do anything with it or if it would fall on deaf ears,” said Farrar.
Within a week he gave the group a thumbs up.
“We were just ecstatic and couldn’t quit smiling. Then they wanted to shoot a video and he was down with that. It was an incredible series of events and not lost on us that 88-year-old Bobby Osborne is on our little crappy record,” laughed Farrar.
Including Osborne on an album of young musicians who have taken what he and other legends including Bill Monroe and Flatts and Scruggs helped create into a new direction isn’t unlike The Rolling Stones in their heyday incorporating blues legends Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker into their live shows, either as a featured performer or opening act.
Farrar said Osborne was once considered a trailblazer despite his image today as a traditional player.
“He was like the first guy to really bend the genre,’ said Farrar. “He was adding minor chords and weird chord progressions you didn’t typically hear with Monroe or Flatts and Scruggs. So really, he was the original ‘us’ 40 or 50 years prior. He was the guy where at first people were like, ‘Ahh that’s not how Bill would have done it.’ Now you can back and listen to the Osborne Brothers from the 60s and 70s and it sounds like traditional stuff. But at the time it was groundbreaking for the genre.”
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