“My greatest source of inspiration is other people’s stories,” Joe Troop tells American Songwriter over the phone from Santa Cruz. He just arrived in California after spending some time down at the US-Mexican border.
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COVID shut down a year of touring right after his Grammy nomination and sent all his bandmates back to Mexico and Argentina. So Joe threw himself into activism, creating his “Pickin’ for Progress” series that highlighted marginalized artists and individuals in the heart of rural North Carolina in an effort to get out the vote in 2020.
Much of the influence of this body of work comes from Troop’s role as an organizer. He defines the job as “strategic human beings trying to produce social change, if not, legal change.” Troop continues, “But watching them work, and watching them delegate responsibility and problem solve in larger groups was really inspiring. It’s easier to have hope for the future when you are in cahoots with the people who are actively producing a different future.”
It was through this work that Troop met his mentor Presidente Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. He described the experience as “an amazing honor and an opportunity to learn how to do this kind of work without demonizing the opposition, to leave an open door for dialogue.”
Their stories coalesce in Troop’s solo debut album, Borrowed Time, due August 20, 2021 on Free Dirt Records.
“The Rise of Dreama Caldwell” was spurred from a similar friendship that bloomed from his video series. Caldwell is a Black woman who ran for county commissioner in Alamance County, North Carolina.
“I had to be very articulate, because I’m telling her story. And I worked very closely with her to write the story and to make sure that it was factually accurate, so I could stand behind everything I said,” he explains of the process with Caldwell.
With the help of talented friends like Béla Fleck (who produced Che Apalache’s Grammy-nominated album), Abigail Washburn, Tim O’Brien, Charlie Hunter, and countless additional musicians he summates as “my community,” Borrowed Time is a reflection of the whole.
“These people got me through the pandemic, and then we made music together. I have some very dear friends whose heart and soul are, are reflected in through the sound of their voice or their instruments on this album,” says Troop. “These people that helped me through that complete upheaval of my trajectory that was pretty much squashed. Which is okay, but you can hear that in this music. This album is like a pivot in my life.”
Fleck, his banjo mentor, and Washburn wanted to elevate the critical messaging on “Mercy for Migrants.” Born from a mournful moment in the Arizona desert, the song speaks to Troop’s emotional unraveling after finding a white cross, fashioned with sunglasses erected from the sand, indicating the remains of a 16-year-old migrant boy found there.
To Troop, O’Brien is a “consummate hero.” Working with him along with Lousiana’s Nokosee Fields on three key album tracks, brought the project full circle. Almost like an arrival, the breadth of collaboration on Troop’s debut solo project, he says, feels like a “gateway into the rest of my adult life.”
“Focusing a wellspring of energy and his many talents—incisive songwriting, passionate singing, and world class instrumental skills—on social justice, Joe Troop has found his mission,” says O’Brien. “Much like Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill before him, his voice rings proud, loud and true in support of underdogs worldwide.”
Some of the more personal songs, like “Purty Little Rainbows” and “Red, White & Blues” provide commentary on current affairs from his perspective as a queer Bluegrass musician raised in rural North Carolina, who, for his ripe age of 38, has seen and absorbed many different parts of the world.
“I see a lot of people playing folk music to the zeitgeist in a very selfish way, but that’s not what folk music is. There’s supposed to be sacrifice behind each song,” says Troop.
“And every song on this album, I’m backing up with my actions—and people can vet that if they want. I want to live and die by my music, because I’ve had to pour every ounce of my heart and soul into this project to get it done, as well. It was a huge task and I desperately wanted this music to reach other people’s ears. Because I, I feel like that’s what I have to give to humanity.”
Pre-save Joe Troop’s Borrowed Time, here.
Photo by Kendall Bailey