Joe Troop, the frontman of the eclectic international musical ensemble Che Apalache, is challenging long-held norms and bringing a classic American artform — bluegrass — to the 21st century. Troop, who grew up in the foothills of North Carolina, is an openly gay bluegrass fiddler and protest song writer, and is one of the very few musicians within that genre to come out and stay out.
Having traveled for years to countries like Japan, Spain and Argentina, Troop formed Che Apalache upon his return to America in 2010. Since then, he has infused bluegrass tunes with his own worldly experiences and acquired musical tastes, mixing folk songs with Latin beats and other influences to create something altogether new.
Now, Che Apalache is releasing its first full-length album, Rearrange My Heart, on Friday (Aug. 9). Drawing on myriad sounds and influences from around the world, the album gives a beautiful, heaping helping of bluegrass with worldwide musical sensibilities.
The new album also weaves a tale of America’s current political climate, rife with white nationalism, fear and mistrust. An especially powerful moment comes with “The Dreamer,” a song inspired by Troop’s friend and fellow queer North Carolina native Moises Serrano, a DACA recipient who created the celebrated 2016 documentary, Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America. In a time when “foreigners” have been deemed a threat by our government and fellow citizens, Che Apalache shows what can be accomplished when cultures collide.
Billboard sat down with Troop to discuss Rearrange My Heart, what it was like growing up gay in 1990s North Carolina and what the future may hold for queers in bluegrass.
What inspired Rearrange My Heart?
The overall theme of Rearrange My Heart is change. This album is a call to action, a reflection on where we are as a human race right now. The name seems like a very fitting title in a way, since it’s about each and every one of us being more malleable and open to evolving, getting better. Rearranging our priorities, and our hearts.
What was it like growing up as an LGBTQ+ person, and a bluegrass fan, in North Carolina?
I felt very desperate. When I was a child, I went to Camp Eagle’s Nest in Pisgah Forest in western North Carolina. The camp counselors would sit around a fire and play bluegrass standards in the evenings, and that’s when I really fell in love with the music. I was in 9th grade and it was also a time when I got called out by a bunk mate for staring at some of the other boys while in the bathroom for shower time. I realized then that this thing, what I’d eventually realize was my gayness, was something I was going to have to mitigate, socially, for the rest of my life.
There was literally one gay club in town, called The Odyssey. It had a big unicorn jumping over a rainbow on the front. And when we’d drive past it, it was like going to the zoo. It was such an other-ing experience. Such a taboo. And the AIDS epidemic heightened those feelings so much. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality in the late ’90s, the crisis was still fresh. My mother worked in public health and I had heard true horror stories. AIDS equaled gay, and gay equaled AIDS. Growing up queer in North Carolina back then was all about fear and stress and waiting for something to change, something better to happen.
What’s your experience been as a queer person in the bluegrass community?
Well…the bluegrass community is certainly not the most progressive genre in the world. Even my young friends in the industry, when I came out to them, wrote it off as a phase, or that I was mistaken. That I would not even know what ‘gay’ was. The bluegrass community is a very heteronormative place. I’ve learned how to code switch for it. So I can be a ‘dude-guy-bro-man’ if I have to be, but the thing is is that I am different. You know, bluegrass is very much a male bonding experience. It’s one of the few musical genres where straight men can become very emotional with each other. Yet being homosexual in the scene is very much taboo. It definitely hasn’t been, historically, a safe place to be queer in.
Do you think that the bluegrass community has become more accepting recently? Are you hopeful for the future?
I’m not sure. If you’re talking about the southeastern bluegrass community, these cultures are still shrouded in puritanism and draped in fundamental Christianity. I’m this sort of rambler who hops around the world and learns languages and does whatever I want. But I’m also from the middle class, so I was able to do that. I had those opportunities, I went to college and it was paid for. I’ve been fortunate, but a lot of people in the bluegrass community have not.
I don’t blame people for having the views that they have. I really do believe that activism and education can help the situation. To be honest, very few out queer people have ever come into their lives. So I can be, maybe, the first and possibly only person they know that’s queer. Maybe I can be that face, I can be that guy, and that’s my cross to bear, as they say. You know, it’s not always fun having to be that guy, but I’ve taken that role on because I have another world behind me. A world where being queer actually helps my career, where it’s actually celebrated and is seen as wonderful. I get points for being gay. It makes me special for some people. So I have that strength behind me.