Old Salt Union: October Album of the Month

Old Salt Union
Compass Records

I was impressed the first time I saw Old Salt Union back in 2014. Since then this Belleville, Illinois quintet has done nothing except get better. Their new self-titled release—the band’s third full LP, but debut on Compass—is testament to their rise to the top tier of working bluegrass bands. Like others in that august company—such as The Steep Canyon Rangers, Mumford and Sons, Union Station, Railroad Earth, The Avett Brothers, and Trampled By Turtles—OSU fuses the traditions of classic string bands with ingredients such as classical music, jam band experimentation, rock, folk, and pop. Fiddler John Brighton was actually trained as a classical violinist and he displays a few highbrow riffs on “Where I Stand,” and eases them into fast and gritty passages that would do proud someone the likes of Darol Anger. That song also includes a line that grabbed me: A dollar and a broken heart/Didn’t seem to get me very far. A tune titled “Flatt Baroque” speaks for itself once you know it’s Lester that’s getting the longhair treatment—mostly on mandolin.

OSU’s versatility stuns. Consider that guitarist Rob Kindle holds a jazz degree, that mando artist Justin Wallace loves both stripped down bluegrass and pop music, that chief vocalist and banjo player Ryan Murphey trained as a horticulturalist, and that bass player Jay Farrar is also a hip hop producer. Now imagine all those interests somehow come together. “Feel My Love” is pop catchy and barn dance old at the same time; “Tuscaloosa” is one part 40s string band, another part retro jazz. You can also hear the balladic “Bought and Sold;” the moody “On My Way” with its frenetic bass lines, tight harmonies, and fiddle/banjo duels; and the hard-driving “Here and Off My Mind.” Then circle back to the dramatic “Hard Line,” which simply obliterates boundaries between bluegrass, folk, jazz, and classical. For pure fun, tough, it’s hard to top Justin Wallace taking the vocal lead for a killer cover of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” 

“To salt” is an old infinitive verb the references the placement of a ringer employee in a workplace with the sole purpose of organizing a union. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the band’s name, but if we think metaphorically, a lot of different experiences came together to form the united body that is Old Salt Union. Power to the union!  

Rob Weir

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