“When silence is betrayal”

Music as message: Mipso feels artists have a social obligation to share their feelings about not only broken hearts, but the broken world. Photo by Leon Godwin

Mipso Trio’s first gig back in 2010 was a benefit show for an on-campus organization at UNC. Their second was a fundraiser for the Hope Chest in Asheville. Considering this, it’s hardly surprising the Chapel Hill-based bluegrass troupe is rolling back through this mountain burg, fusing its upcoming CD-release party at the LAB with an awareness event for the campaign against Amendment One.

Mandolinist Jacob Sharp doesn’t hesitate in explaining the trio’s firm and impassioned stance against the proposed state constitutional amendment — on the May 8 primary ballot — which would bar same-sex couples from civil recognition and domestic partner benefits, among other things.

“It’s pretty easy to see which side of history I want to be on,” he says.

The long line of folk and roots artists who have taken a stance on socio-political issues doesn’t escape Sharp or his bandmates. While their music might not hint at their position on marriage equality specifically, there is certainly an indication in the songs that these are three men who value honesty and mutual respect, and fairness in general.

Besides, who ever said a song has to be overtly political in order for the artist to be making a radical statement? Isn’t music — that thing which requires a person to stand in front of a microphone and bare their soul — one of the purest vehicles for sharing one’s passions and beliefs? Don’t artists then have a sort of social obligation to share their feelings about not only broken hearts, but the broken world, as well? Mipso guitarist Joseph Terrell says yes.

“We’re musicians,” he says, “but I think it would be wrong to limit ourselves to a pure musical message that doesn’t go beyond the songs we’ve written. I think of Martin Luther King, who I’ll paraphrase: ‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal.’ I think this is the time when it’s not OK not to say something. That doesn’t mean every song needs to be explicitly about social justice. But if you come see us and we’re on stage and we’ve got a microphone, we’re going to let you know how we feel about what’s going on around us and [what impacts] the future of our state.”

Sharp adds, “We love live shows because they facilitate a shared experience [between us and an audience] … but that wouldn’t be possible if people weren’t connecting with the emotions and experience behind the music. If people are digging our songs, I hope that they can see and respect our values in them as well.”

It can be risky business for a band whose music is largely apolitical to take such a strong stand on polarizing issues.
The bluegrass community, in particular, isn’t always as progressive as its youngest players. Then again, as Long, Long Gone  — the album they’ll be celebrating at the LAB on May 5 — would attest, Mipso has grown since its debut EP, from bluegrass to something slightly less definable. Indeed, their “hero band” is the Punch Brothers — a collective of young men in Brooklyn who spent their formative years picking bluegrass and now edge ever closer to progressive-indie-jazz-rock (if there is such a thing).

Of course, it helps that the three members — Sharp, plus Terrell on guitar, and bassist Wood Robinson — are full-time students at UNC. Their reliance on class schedules and, presumably, student loans, frees them from any obligation to make a real living at the music just yet. All three agree they see this era of the band as a sort of grace period, when they can focus on truly making music for the right reasons. Right now that means putting their relative popularity to work for their conscience.

“Although I wish this wasn’t on the table right now,” says Sharp, “it is really fortunate to have an issue like this to unify my generation. People tend to think our parents did all the fighting for civil rights. [Amendment One] is a pretty clear reminder we’ve got a lot of work to do … we have to do something. I feel lucky to have a voice, and Mipso feels honored to be able to play a role in this battle. North Carolina is a big part of my, and our, identity. It wouldn’t be easy to abandon that. Besides, my brother is gay, and a large part of the reason he moved to New York City a few years ago is centered around equality issues. I need to help prepare this state for his return.”

— Kim Ruehl is a freelance writer living in Asheville. Follow her on Twitter: @kimruehl.

who: Mipso Trio
where: Lexington Avenue Brewery (The LAB)
when: Saturday, May 5 (9:30 p.m.

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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