In the dead quiet heat of the mid-July mountains, Jesse Farrar steps into an old saloon in Paradise Valley, Montana.
“We just started out on a 30-day jaunt out West,” he says in a relaxed Mississippi River drawl. “I think I’ll get better service in here.”
The very same tour will bring his up-and-coming string quintet out of Belleville, Illinois, to South Lake Tahoe this Thursday for a free show for the Live at Lakeview concert series. Since forming in 2013, Old Salt Union has averaged more than 200 gigs a year, and that steady effort and endless travel crisscrossing the country looks like it’s about to pay off.
By all indicators, 2018 is destined to be their breakout year. This past winter they embarked on West Coast tour with jamgrass icons Yonder Mountain String Band, gaining hundreds of new fans in the process.
“The positives were endless,” Farrar says. “Aside from the opportunity to see how a band that’s been doing it for 20 years operates on a nightly basis, they are all fantastic people to be around. We were taking notes in a lot different ways since they basically wrote the book on it.”
They ended that spree with a head-turning performance at WinterWonderGrass in Squaw Valley that had many longtime bluegrass fans professing they were the best band of the weekend, surpassing even the current kings of the scene such as The Infamous Stringdusters and Railroad Earth.
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s the energy of our live shows that sets us apart,” Farrar says. “I also believe we take our songwriting really seriously. With a lot of bands I see, the music is good, but the actual songwriting is only reaching the tip of the iceberg. We try to write songs that mean something and that helps with the longevity of the music. We had some good mentors growing up who taught us how to write a good song. So if something sounds good, we chase it.”
One of the mentors Farrar may be referring to is his uncle Jay Farrar. As one-third of the seminal late 1980s/early ’90s alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn, Uncle Jay changed the juxtaposition of rock ‘n’ roll and Americana forever. After Uncle Tupelo broke up in 1994, Farrar and Heidorn went on to form Son Volt, another legendary band in its own right that continues to tour and produce new music to this day.
“I didn’t have much of a fighting chance,” the younger Farrar says. “My uncle, my father, my grandfather – they were all in on it. Everywhere I turned somebody was playing music.”
His father, Dade, worked for the state, but played music out on the town several nights a week. When Jesse was only 6, his grandfather, James, would take him to historic Soulard Market in downtown East St. Louis, Missouri, just across The Big Muddy River from Belleville, to accompany him on bodhran and accordion.
“He was a merchant marine who spent a lot of time on the river,” Farrar says. “He liked to do songs he learned over the years of traveling. He’d be singing and telling stories the whole time. He was a real one-of-a-kind character.”
Jesse’s first ever concert was at Mississippi Nights for Uncle Tupelo’s final show.
“I’m pretty sure I fell asleep,” he laughs. “But I was only a little kid at the time. It’s funny now looking back on it. I’ve watched videos of the concert and it’s definitely something special that I got to witness, something that stuck with me a long time. The way Uncle Jay writes song, the way that he approaches opportunities – he never left what was true to him. Deep down, he’s kind of a blue collar guy, a great dude and a great brother.
Son Volt’s 1995 debut record “Trace” made a lasting impression on the young musician. The lead single from that work, “Windfall,” is regularly listed on Top 10 lists of Americana compositions.
“It’s such a poignant album,” he says. “Even at that time, I felt it was important songwriting. And he’s still doing it to this day. He’s another guy I can look up to and see how it’s continually done.”
In spite of the natural influence of his family, the younger Farrar made it a point from early on to get his music out there without his uncle’s help.
“I’ve never used his name as a stepping stone and I think he’s sort of appreciated that,” he admits.
After majoring in upright bass at Eastern Illinois University, Farrar was back in his hometown playing some wedding gigs and kicking around looking for something new to do. In a few months span, he connected with all the other members of the future band. Although some of them had gone to the same high school and they knew of each other from old school punk bands and the like, they had never really hung out or jammed together until that summer.
“We were all fresh out of college, in between stuff, looking for the next wind to blow us,” Farrar says. “It was completely organic how it all came together and we decided to give it a shot.”
After two years of relentless touring, Old Salt Union’s first big break came at the Freshgrass Music Festival band contest in North Adams, Massachusetts.
“It was up in the Northeast, which wasn’t a region we were familiar with,” he remembers. “We drove 15 or 16 hours straight just to get up there. We knew there was going to be some pretty stiff competition from a bunch of kids at Berklee College of Music. But everybody said we were a breath of fresh air and we ended up winning the competition.
This award created a connection with Alison Brown of Nashville’s Compass Records. Brown is a critically acclaimed International Bluegrass Music Association Banjoist of the Year and a former member of Northern Lights, Union Station and Michelle Shocked.
“We recorded a single and within the next year, we’d signed with the label,” Farrar says.
In 2017, Old Salt Union released an eponymous album that contained some new compositions mixed in with the best tunes from the their first four records.
“We all thought they were great songs,” Farrar says. “After talking with Compass, we decided to put our best put foot forward and move on from there. They let us reimagine the songs how we always wanted and lay them down with a producer. It was a ton of fun.”
For now, Old Salt Union continues to hit the road hard in support of the album, performing at theaters, clubs and festivals across the Lower 48 throughout the year.
“It’s kind of what we always looked for,” Farrar says. “As long as we felt things were going forward, we were going to push.”
— Sean McAlindin
Old Salt Union will perform with The Young Fables for Like at Lakeview on Thursday, July 26. They will return to California again for Huck Finn Jubilee in Ontario on Oct. 7 and Hangtown Music Festival in Placerville on Oct 28.