There’s a new bluegrass band to turn your frostbitten ears to. Well, not new in the sense of time, but new to my catalogue, so it still counts. Old Salt Union is a bluegrass/folk band from Illinois and man, do they rip.
I produced an article about Horseshoes and Hand Grenades a few months ago saying that they were the best bluegrass group I’d ever seen, and now I’m thinking the same for Old Salt Union, but for different reasons. I first heard of Old Salt Union when my friends and I bought tickets to see local legends The Last Revel at the Mankato Brewery on Dec. 16 of last year. Expecting a fantastic show, I’d never considered how good the opening band from Illinois would be. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
The current live makeup of Old Salt Union consists of five string-picking members: Justin Wallace on mandolin, Ryan Murphy on banjo, Jesse Farrar on upright bass, Dustin Eiskant on guitar, and John Brighton on violin. Each member does their share of singing, most portray knowledge of different instruments on their recordings, and each of them are fantastic musicians. I had the great honor of joining the members of Old Salt Union in their giant RV after their set at the Brewery. We chummed around about the local music scene and I received a free copy of their most recent album, Cut & Run which, despite having a mere six songs and much like Horseshoes and Hand Grenades’ Middle Western, hasn’t left the CD player in my mini-van for months.
Preshow, roaming around the Mankato Brewery with as much pride as if he were wearing a suit of armor, Farrar showed off the shiner he received the previous night from an angry patron who didn’t appreciate Farrar’s words to his girlfriend. The mango-sized bruise caught the light in a peculiar, ironic way as Farrar sang “Madam Plum, now I’m truly out here on the run, ‘cause these sirens and canines caught my scented gun” from the Cut and Run track “Madam Plum.” This track serves as an honest, but awful, explanation behind the protagonist’s involvement (intentional and not) in adultery. “Madam Plum,” along with Farrar’s black eye, personifies the thematic message in Cut and Run – make love and move on.
Lyrically, however, “Madam Plum” greatly contrasts Wallace’s “Feel My Love” which opens the album. It’s a nice, sweet, beautifully simple song about travelling great distances, metaphorically and literally, to hopefully arrive at a love that potentially won’t reciprocate but nonetheless inspires movement: “I’m crossing rivers, jumping county lines to get to you, pretty girl. I count the days.” Not so much the raw, ruthless writing style of Farrar, but still somewhere on the spectrum of hopeful, unrequited love. Wallace’s meandering mandolin solos dance around his vocal melody and add a tinny grain of positivity to the love-filled hope found throughout the album.
But that high-pitched hope only goes so far. Tracks like Eiskant’s “Devil’s Got Friends” pull thoughts of love into the underworld with a spitting violin hook that reminds the listener of The Charlie Daniel’s Band’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and a driving force that redirects the theme of Cut and Run toward an acceptance of our devilish ways as humans. The repetition of the chorus’ lyrics, “the Devil’s got a way of making friends,” speaks of the fragility of morality and recognizes our abilities to side with immoral actions in pursuit of love. Additionally, the chorus acts as an acceptance of things larger than us and moreover that we are not always resilient to these larger things, positive or not.
“Still Baroque,” the album’s sole instrumental track, bounces back and forth through these polar ends of omniscient mentalities by twisting around in major and minor keys and withholding any lyrical explanation as to why, setting up Cut and Run’s final track “Hard Line,” where the best lyrics are found: “There ain’t much pride in these bones but it’s just enough to hold my weight./ There’s a fire in my soul and its flames will surely guide my way.” The fire that burns in the protagonist’s soul may certainly define their fate, but to leave that fate up for interpretation by saying that the flames will “guide my way” both allows the listener to reflect upon their own moral direction as well as allowing the listener to understand the protagonist’s struggle with their own direction.
With Wallace leading the way vocally, the band thumps behind him in such a way that reminds me of an outlaw skipping town and leaving his loved ones behind just to save his own skin but then realizes that he must return if he doesn’t want his ways to bring his immoral demise.
Overall, Old Salt Union’s Cut and Run possesses a power that is reminiscent of a yearning for positive moral values, but the true attraction that arises from this collection of songs comes from their sheer acceptance of immoral ways. As each protagonist struggles with direction and the loss of love, a clarity is found in their bad decisions.