2015 FreshGrass Band Award winner Old Salt Union epitomizes what FreshGrass is about — the five-piece lives at the intersection of tradition and innovation, of honoring the past and embracing the future of this music, with a dash of the off-kilter and surprising thrown in. A string band founded by a horticulturist, cultivated by classically trained musicians, and fueled by a vocalist/bass player who is also a hip-hop producer with a fondness for the Four Freshmen, they create a collision of styles and musical vocabularies that inform a fresh approach to bluegrass and an electric live performance vibe that seems to pull more from Vaudeville than the front porch.
Old Salt Union once again enlisted Grammy-winning banjoist and Compass co-founder Alison Brown to produce the follow-up to their self-titled Compass Records debut. The resulting album, Where the Dogs Don’t Bite, builds on this non-traditional string band’s varied musical backgrounds for a wildly entertaining, eclectic batch of songs.
The quintet — Ryan Murphey (banjo), Justin Wallace (lead vocals and mandolin), John Brighton (violin), Jesse Farrar (lead vocals and bassist) and newest member Graham Curry (guitar) have continued to hone and develop their sound through relentless touring, cultivating a steadfast fanbase drawn to their high-energy shows. Coming from varied musical backgrounds, Old Salt Union’s collective melting pot of styles and musical vocabularies informs their fresh approach to modern string band music and has helped to carve a unique niche for this Belleville, Illinois roots outfit.
Farrar, nephew of Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, kicks off the album with “God You Don’t Need,” a hook laden ode to a relationship gone bad set against a tapestry of strings and an eerily compelling banjo melody. Label mate Bobby Osborne guests on “Tell Me So,” a nod to the bluegrass side of the band’s musical sensibilities featuring lead vocals and songwriting by mandolinist Justin Wallace.
Violinist Brighton delivers the gypsy-tinged instrumental “Johann’s Breakdown,” which pulls from jazz and classical progressions, and Wallace delivers the haunting title track, “Where The Dogs Don’t Bite.” The dark, but heartfelt song features triple-layered guitar harmonies, stacked vocals, and a group sing-along that recalls last call at a corner pub in the rust belt, a fitting closing to this musically diverse and compelling release.