As a Grammy-nominated bluegrass musician, Joe Troop is no stranger to making some noise himself. But with his new video series Pickin’ for Progress, he’s using his platform to inspire people to tell their stories, providing a megaphone for voices that too often go unheard. He’s also encouraging people in rural North Carolina to reclaim their power by exercising their right to vote.
Stranded in Winston-Salem, a city he left soon after he came out as gay at age 19, Troop launched the Pickin’ series of mini-documentaries mixed with musical performances because he was looking for something to do. Now he may have found a new calling. “Being able to do this project is a tremendous blessing,” Troop says. “I feel more passionate about this than … anything else I’ve done.”
That’s saying a lot. The 37-year-old banjo player and his band Che Apalache have been praised for revitalizing roots music, by taking the instruments and techniques of Southern string-band music and applying them to the rhythms and textures of Latin, African and Asian music.
Troop puts that glowing portrait in perspective. Che Apalache is a result of the sounds and rhythms of Buenos Aires, the band’s hometown, not any predetermined plan to shake up the bluegrass establishment, he says.
“Everyone wants a mystical origin story,” Troop offers. “It’s just four people living in a city of 15 million people, messing around with different forms of music.”
Troop has lived in the Argentinian capital city for the past 10 years, and his Latin-American bandmates — Mexican banjo player Pau Barjau, and two Argentinians, guitarist Franco Martino and mandolinist Martin Bobrick— are his former music students.
“I had knowledge of the traditions and how we play the instruments. I taught them that,” Troop offers. “They’re cosmopolitan guys who listen to all kinds of music.”
That eclecticism is apparent on the band’s acclaimed 2019 album Rearrange My Heart, which opens with “Saludo Murguero,” a greeting framed as a murga, a Uruguayan street theater tune. The hypnotic “Maria” follows, entwining tango, percussive candombe and the rasgueado rhythms of flamenco.
Che Apalache also draws on folk music’s tradition of protest songs, saving its strongest messages for its most traditional tunes. “The Dreamer” recounts the story of gay North Carolina resident and DACA recipient Moises Serrano, says Troop. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or “Dreamers,” are undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children who receive eligibility for a U.S work permit plus a renewable two-year period free from the threat of deportation.
“It’s important to shine light on stories [like Serrano’s] because … the Trump administration has totally upended legal immigration and protections like DACA,” Troop says. “’The Dreamer’ is a song that hopes to humanize these dreamers and give them a voice.”
In January, when he attended the Grammy ceremony where Che Apalache was nominated for Best Folk Album, Troop walked the red carpet with Serrano “The Wall” is another traditional tune that subverts bluegrass expectations with a progressive message, criticizing Trump’s wall, and the racist pandering it represents.
“[Bluegrass] has become a stomping ground for white nationalists,” Troop says. “They think this is their music. It’s not.”
Troop points to Southern string-band music, some of it historically played by African Americans, to refute the narrative that bluegrass is based entirely on the music of white Appalachian communities. He also calls attention to the instrument he plays. “It’s an African instrument,” Troop says.
The bluegrass establishment’s focus on straight white male players is one the biggest things that alienated Troop when he was growing up queer in Winston-Salem. “White people in the United States over-compensate for the fragility of our own identities, which are rooted in inflicting hardship upon others and appropriating and fetishizing their cultures,” Troop maintains. “I’m a part of that and I recognize it.”
Troop dealt with his alienation by leaving, heading off to college at UNC Chapel Hill, and then to Spain at the University of Seville. Travel seemed to set off a globetrotting chain reaction for Troop. In addition to America and Spain, he also lived in Japan before landing in Buenos Aires, where he’s settled for the last decade. Then last March, Che Apalache was touring the U.S., when the country swiftly shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Overnight, the four members of Che Apalache had to rearrange their lives.
The two Argentinians, Martino and Bobrick, booked one of the last flights out of their country to Buenos Aires. Barjau decamped for Mexico, which hadn’t locked down yet. Troop decided to stay in the states to deal with the economic repercussions of an abruptly canceled tour. As Troop was tying up loose ends, he was contacted by Matt Hildreth of RuralOrganizing.org, a progressive advocacy group that states on its website that its mission is “to rebuild a rural America that is empowered, thriving, and equitable.”
“Matt was challenging the narrative about rural America,” Troop remembers.
He says that RuralOrganizing.org, which has been working since last summer on a campaign to strengthen the US Postal Service, challenged Troop to write a song about the service. The song, “A Plea to the US Government to Fully Fund the Postal Service,” went viral in April, when Troop debuted it online. It went viral again in August when Troop performed it in front of hundreds of protesters at the Greensboro home of embattled US Postmaster Louis DeJoy.
The following Monday, Troop played the song and a few others at Marshall Park in Charlotte on the first day of the Republican National Convention. In July, RuralOrganizing.org launched VoteNC.org, a coalition of North Carolina grassroots organizations devoted to a varied slate of projects across the state. VoteNC.org’s goal is to encourage people to volunteer with grassroots organizations to help with a number of causes including getting out the vote, Troop says.
The purpose of the Pickin’ for Progress videos, which can be seen on YouTube and Facebook, is to get people to volunteer for VoteNC.org and pick which organizations they want to work with, Troop offers. Each episode of the series, hosted by Troop, blends social justice music and interviews with rural progressives in a mini-documentary format. Several of the songs were written by Troop, and he arranges all of the material.
Troop kicked off the series with a friend, Oklahoma-born Cherokee Nokosee Fields. In the interview, Troop and Field examine the very notion of immigration in North Carolina, where whites have displaced original indigenous inhabitants. They also play the tune “Hermano Migrante” (“Brother Migrant”).
Other editions feature interviews with Juana Luz Tobar Ortega an undocumented immigrant who has sought sanctuary in a Greensboro church, and Lumbee activist and environmental scientist Alexis Raeana Jones. The interviews are followed with performances by Troop. Often, the interview subjects, like Jones, join Troop in song. Episode 8 covers the exploitation of undocumented central American immigrants in Morganton, largely indigenous Mayan people from Guatemala
Pickin’ for Progress is a showcase of progressive thought in North Carolina, Troop says. He counts himself lucky that he gets to sit down with interesting people and help them to tell their stories.
“This is the best education I’ve ever gotten,” he says. “I won’t lie, it’s a challenge, [but] it’s a noble challenge. To me, it’s the greatest job, [and] the best work I’ve ever done.”