The last in-person show Joe Troop played with his Latingrass band Che Apalache was at Nashville’s City Winery just days before the first nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns began. That 2020 show feels like it was decades ago. Now, Troop is set to return to Music City, but he’ll be on his own this time. On Tuesday, Sept. 14, he’ll bring the tour celebrating the release of his new activism-centered solo album Borrowed Time to 3rd and Lindsley.
Borrowed Time dropped last month via Free Dirt Records. Troop co-produced with Jason Richmond, and the single “Mercy for Migrants,” one of three tracks from the album recorded in Nashville, features banjo heroes Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. (Fleck also produced Che Apalache’s most recent record, 2019’s Grammy-nominated Rearrange My Heart.) The record is built on Troop’s experiences at a migrant shelter in Mexico and his time working with labor and union leader Baldemar Velásquez, co-founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Troop talks the talk — or perhaps more appropriately, sings the song — and walks the walk. He’s raising money for the migrant shelter and continues his activism while on tour.
Advance tickets for Tuesday's show are $12. We caught up with Troop shortly after his tour kicked off.
Update, Sept. 14: This show has been canceled.
Where are you right now? You’ve been in Mexico, Los Angeles and North Carolina. Every time we talk you’re somewhere different!
Right now I’m in Durham, N.C. I’ve been on tour now for five days. It feels like I’ve been on tour for five months because of all the cancellations — putting out fires. It’s been hectic.
What’s been the reaction to the new album so far?
I’ve gotten some really great feedback. I’m getting good reviews and people are realizing I’m a banjo player — which, in Che Apalache, I played the fiddle. “It feels like your finger’s on the pulse” — that’s what I keep hearing. [This is] my reckoning with the realities we’re facing. A lot of media is designed to be positive all of the time, but this is a much more realistic theme.
Can you recount the inspiration for “Mercy for Migrants?”
I was on a walk in the Sonoran Desert with a pastor in southern Arizona, and we came across this white cross that said, “Unknown Adolescent.” That’s where the remains of a 16-year old boy were found, right over the hill from this clearly opulent house. This kid died in some person’s back yard, and that imagery stuck with me. I had to write something about it, and I did. That’s what “Mercy for Migrants” is about. How can we be so cruel to allow this to happen? A little child dies out in the desert right next to some McMansion?
It feels like you’re putting your career on the line to help migrants and labor leaders.
We all have to reckon with the fact that the idea of a music career has changed. No one knows what’s happening in the music industry. No one understands why someone becomes a tastemaker. No one can tell you today what is good or bad for your career. I’m true to myself, and I’m still working. I don’t know if the paradigm of having a career in music even exists anymore. A lot has changed and will continue to do so.
What are you most looking forward to about this tour?
What I’m most looking forward to is the fact that I’m playing this new music with incredible musicians, [percussionist Cesar Bacaro and bassist Trey Boudreaux, both hailing from Louisiana]. We’re getting to explore all these amazing textures. I love how the banjo sits in this ensemble. I’m most excited for people to hear these sound textures they’ve never heard.
With these musical influences, it feels like you’re almost putting the banjo back where it came from historically, in the context of African and African American art.
The congas and the banjo are a match made in heaven. The banjo is stigmatized, an armament of white supremacy. Cesar is Cuban so he has none of the stigma of banjo, he just likes the sounds of the instrument. We’re exploring a lot of cool soundscapes, and crazy amounts of different genres, mixing them all together and crafting something unique. And it feels very free — we’re just making music. There’s no stigma attached to anything, and that’s kind of cool because we’re all pretty worldly guys, but none of us identify to the core with where we’re from. We’re all globally minded men.
You’ve said before you hope people come out and safely support musicians. What does that look like to you?
I think for obvious public health reasons, people that are not vaccinated should get vaccinated. If you want us to be able to keep working, come out, wear your mask and have proof of vaccination. It’s being implemented all over the country. It’s not a big deal! We’re doing that every night. And it allows us to stay onstage.
What was it like working with Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck on such an important track?
It was great — working with Béla and Abby is awesome. Interestingly enough, the song they played on, “Mercy for Migrants,” corresponds with work they’re already doing. So working with them on a musical level is awesome, but I feel a kindredness because we’re interested in using music for social justice purposes. We have an affinity in common. And of course they’re phenomenal musicians and brought a lot of magic to the track.