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Queer String Musician Joe Troop Aims to Help Migrants with New Album


Joe Troop
Kendall Bailey*

Joe Troop

Joe Troop, founder of Grammy-nominated Argentinian-American string band Che Apalache, is looking for a little hope. Troop’s solo album, Borrowed Time, out Friday on Free Dirt Records, continues a career in music that’s deeply embedded in, and built on, activism.

Growing up openly gay in North Carolina meant Troop learned early on how to be empathetic toward people who don’t look the same or share similar culture -- and Troop’s experience visiting a migrant shelter in Mexico during the pandemic has changed his music forever. During one visit, Troop visited the grave of a 16-year old migrant boy who died in the desert trying to cross the border. Troop says it shook him to his core, and led to his developing a website to coincide with the album that raises money for the La Casa de la Divina Misericordia y Todas las Naciones migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.

Borrowed Time, co-produced by Troop and Jason Richmond, boasts tracks like “Mercy For Migrants,” which features singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn on backup vocals and harmony. The track also features banjo virtuoso Belá Fleck, who previously produced a Che Apalache album -- and Troop expresses gratitude for their artistry, because it gives the activist side of his work an additional audience and awareness boost. However, Troop says the real focus is on migrants who need help to survive, not on his career or ego.

“I have no intentions on proselytizing," Troop says. "I don’t want to be some great revered famous person, I’m just another human being trying to cope with these desperate times."

Fleck, the 14-time Grammy-winning artist and producer, says he first met Troop at a his 2018 banjo camp where Troop “knocked everyone senseless.” He admires Troop’s bravery and enjoys supporting artists with a message. “I try hard to avoid doing things that don’t matter to me,” Fleck told Billboard via email. “This does.”

To coincide with the album, Troop is also releasing a documentary made with multimedia brand GemsOnVHS (best known for capturing live field recordings), which follows the life of labor and union leader Baldemar Velásquez, co-founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. The documentary will begin releasing episodes in late September, and Troop says he was inspired by the way Velásquez uses music to organize workers. Velásquez, who grew up working as a farm hand and heard his mother sing to keep the workers motivated on long day, learned to organize from the best -- Pete Seeger, the late, legendary, union-loving folk singer who made songs like “Which Side Are You On” famous.

When Velásquez met Troop a few months ago, he says the two immediately hit it off. “I’m hoping with [Joe’s] music we can bring attention to inequities, and bring farmers and farm workers together,” Velásquez says. “I’m hoping [to] bring some healing in the rural parts of America.”

Promoting the new record and documentary together is a first for Free Dirt, according the label’s general manager Jonathan Een Newton. The label’s roster includes Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, bluegrass icons Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard and Jake Blount. Een Newton says they look for artists with a strong message, and were impressed with Troop when he was touring with Che Apalache.

“It’s great when musicians put their careers -- and not everyone can, because you have to make a living -- but really put their careers on the line saying things that are uncomfortable,” Een Newton says. “Joe exemplifies that. Joe is interested in changing minds and hearts.”
 
Een Newton says many of Troop’s press releases and radio promos are translated into Spanish to reach wider audiences, and that great care is taken with Troop and all the label’s artists to make sure the emotional, activist messages come through in promo materials loud and clear.

Troop will tour this fall with dates planned in Nashville, Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities, including in his home state of North Carolina. He says he hopes people will continue to support musicians by getting vaccinated and wearing masks, so they can safely attend shows and help artists who’ve been hurt financially by the pandemic. Above all, though, Troop hopes his music will help him make sense of a complicated world, and that it brings real change to migrants and farm workers who are desperate for better lives.

“I just hope the music can be healing,” Troop says. “I want it to be medicine to people.”