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This Is How It Begins: Old Salt Union

[by Mark Johnson] The yellow and green converted shuttle bus, christened Rosemary, looked like a punk living room inside. A worn rug lay on the floor, black curtains lined the back windows, and band stickers were stuck over parts of the shelves, walls and the bus door. Three rows of seats U-ed around the back walls of the bus, each facing into the center, and on those seats sat the members of Old Salt Union: John Brighton, Jesse Farrar, Dustin Eiskant, Ryan Murphey and Justin Wallace. They were minutes out of finishing a show at Pitcher’s Sports Bar in Belleville, their hometown, on an early August night.

I took a seat and Ryan turned Rosemary’s ignition. The air conditioning kicked on and diminished the summery humidity to a hum and a cool breeze.

The band had played to a packed house. A number of people braved the sacred space known as the dance floor and few could keep from kicking boots and tapping fingers during the show.
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At first sight, Old Salt Union looks like a bluegrass band, and that’s likely what many people at the bar thought they were seeing. Old Salt Union’s instrumentation is the traditional bluegrass confederacy of strings, usually with Dustin on guitar, Jesse on upright bass, John on violin, Justin on mandolin and Ryan on banjo. All of them sing, but Dustin and Jesse usually tag off on lead vocals.

But beyond appearances, Old Salt Union uses the bluegrass lineup differently from acts in the genre, although they smartly employ bluegrass’s rich traditions and sound as a vehicle to craft their tunes. Leveraging their collective seventy years of musicianship to meld a variety of other styles — pop, rock, rap, metal, classical, jazz – they pluck up an infusion that’s precisely their own brew.

Their songs are often heartache narratives propped up on pop song structures with infectious melodies. When he’s not bouncing alongside his bass, Jesse is singing with all the presence of his rap MC past. Meanwhile John and Justin interweave melodic lines, harmonizing, veering off and then merging at the song’s emotional climax with Dustin and Ryan laying the sonic foundations for the song. For all those seventy years of experience, each band member knows how their roles layer to create songs that have depth, drive and soul.

And people have reacted to that, strongly. A week from this night will mark their first year together as a band. Before they can put the first candle on their cake they’ve recorded an album, titled “Western Skies”, bought Rosemary and taken her on a multi-state tour, and won two Indie Music Channel awards for Best Folk Song (“Walk Away”) and Best World Song (“Flat Baroque”). They were also nominated for Best Album.

Those are just a few of the highlights that have made being in this band so surreal for these guys. Each has been in other projects before and they’re all aware of their quick rise and success. They’ve already transitioned from seeing mostly friends and family at shows to playing in other states with strangers singing along to their songs. A first for all of them, they’re euphoric without dipping into egotism.

“It’s so humbling. There are people who believe in us outside of the five of us and our folks, and that’s been a totally different carpet ride,” Ryan said.

That carpet ride began after Ryan, Dustin and Justin, then performing as the Sunken Garden Jokers, recruited Jesse and John to follow a growing interest in the bluegrass sound. Soon they realized they had a chemistry that none of them had experienced before.

“I’ve been in somewhere between twenty and thirty bands,” Jesse said, “and none of them have felt like this.”

Their chemistry translates quite easily into energetic shows and cheering, clapping audiences. Whenever I’d look at the crowd earlier that night, many sang along and seemingly everyone clapped the beat to the song “Flat Baroque”, which has a rather exotic time signature that’d likely confound someone who hadn’t heard the song before.

Back in the lab, their chemistry has evolved a songwriting process that lets them be comfortable while being creatively vulnerable around each other. That’s critically important for the band for one reason: “Every one of us writes,” Dustin said. “In that way, we don’t limit the baskets we pull from.”

But that process is something they’ve mostly established since writing their newer material.

“I feel like all of our new songs have been collaborations, whereas on the first album it was more like somebody brought a core and everybody added to it,” Justin said.

“And nobody wanted to step on any toes,” Jesse said. “Now when we bring ideas to the table, it changes and morphs, and all of a sudden it becomes an Old Salt Union song and not a Jesse Farrar song, or a Dustin Eiskant song.”

Even in their live shows, you’ll hear variations of songs they’ve only just recorded a few months ago, which means that in their new material, “You’re going to see growth and change on every album we put out,” John said.
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Besides all the mystic considerations behind why musicians can form any sort of dynamic through their instruments, the success of Old Salt Union also comes down to two clearly non-mystic factors: work and people listening to their music.

“We set unrealistic goals for ourselves,” Ryan said. Ryan also acts as the band manager. “I figure the only way we’re going to get anywhere is by sending our stuff everywhere.”

That modus operandi has gotten Old Salt Union onto the main stage at Wakarusa, a huge four-day concert series in Arkansas, after winning a local contest at the Old Rock House to play and then a national listener-voted contest on the event’s website for main stage honors. In each and every instance, it’s been listeners – they don’t like the sound of calling people “fans” – that have helped bring Old Salt Union up to the next level. That’s made unrealistic seem feasible.

“When you have something so gorgeous – and I use gorgeous pretty strongly – as this happening to us right now, it all seems realistic,” Jesse said.

“It’s like surfing on a wave; we have a great show and then some awesome stuff happens and you don’t want to get too excited ‘cause you’re like ‘Man, inevitably this is going to crash,’ but we don’t crash – I feel like I’ve been riding a wave for an entire year,” Justin said.

Seemingly many others have been riding along, too. Back in Pitcher’s, at least four people who noticed me with my steno pad came over and asked if I was writing about the band. “Yea,” I’d say. “These guys are awesome; make sure you give them a good review,” they’d say, or some variation.

Then our heads would turn forward for the next song, the urging stand-up bass and the strumming of many strings bringing a connectedness to the place. Then there was just the moment, the night, the show, the song, everyone there feeling what was being forged on stage, all some part of this band’s story, one that’s just beginning to unfold.

You can check out Old Salt Union on their website at www.oldsaltunion.com. There you can see upcoming shows and hear samples from their album, “Western Skies”, which is also on iTunes. You can follow Old Salt Union on Instagram, Facebook and on Twitter. You can find their album, “Western Skies”, on iTunes and at www.Soundcloud.com/oldsaltunion. You can see upcoming shows and hear samples from “Western Skies” on their website at www.OldSaltUnion.com.

And this just in: “Friends, we are extremely humbled and honored to announce that we have been named Best Bluegrass Band in St. Louis for 2013 by Riverfront Times! This is especially exciting for us, as none of us in the band were aware that we were being considered for this award.”