At the beginning of last year, the way forward for Joe Troop seemed clear. He and his Argentina-based “Latin Grass” band Che Apalache had a Grammy-nominated album out (produced by banjo legend Bela Fleck, no less) with plans to spend most of 2020 on the road playing live across America and beyond.
Unfortunately, the Coronavirus pandemic took care of that, scattering Che Apalache’s members to the winds and leaving them scrambling to figure out what was next. Bandleader Troop, a Winston-Salem native and UNC alumnus, retreated to North Carolina to ride out the pandemic and ponder options.
Troop’s next move turned out to be an acclaimed video series called “Pickin’ For Progress.” Equal parts music and activism, “Pickin’ For Progress” episodes combine live music with interviews to try and rally progressive voters in red-state areas across North Carolina and the rest of the American South.
That led to a documentary, “Pickin’ For Progress: Baldemar Velasquez, How Music Makes the Movement,” funded in part by a “Humanities for the Public Good” grant from UNC. The film about labor organizer/MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow Velasquez showed at UNC’s Chapel Hill campus at the end of September during a day-long music-activism symposium.
Other installments of the series are in post-production and will air to the public later. Meantime, Troop also released his first solo album this fall, “Borrowed Time” (Free Dirt Records). A number of “Borrowed Time” songs emerged from various “Pickin’ For Progress” videos, such as “The Rise of Dreama Caldwell”, about an activist working to reform the cash-bail system in nearby Alamance County.
Activism comes naturally to Troop, a banjo player/fiddler/guitarist and one of the few openly gay musicians in the world of bluegrass and folk music. Troop recently wrapped a tour through COVID-ravaged Midwestern and Southern states, which was a fraught experience. His Triangle date had to be canceled when half of the staff at Raleigh’s Pour House nightclub tested positive for the virus and the venue had to temporarily close. That left Troop and his band having to improvise.
“We did a local house concert that night instead, and somehow 130 people came out,” Troop says. “It was magical, like a rise of the phoenix. Touring the U.S. right now is really difficult. We’ve had to creatively scrounge enough money to keep afloat. Life has taken some unexpected turns and I had an upheaval of the trajectory I was on. But different trajectories have appeared and I’ve been blessed with new friendships and musical partnerships. Out of chaos, music will find a way.”
Troop hopes to move back to the Triangle at some point in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, he’s essentially living on the road nowadays, moving far and wide from one project to the next. Recent doings include playing a festival in Tennessee while helping to organize farmworkers, recording with an old-time group in Louisiana and acting in a theater production of “The Freedom Riders” at a theater in Ohio
“I’m trying to use what musical platform I have to promote issues that are important,” Troop says. “Informing people and raising awareness is my duty in the public sphere.”