Thursday, March 5, 2015

Frank Solivan - Leading The Way In Today's Bluegrass

Frank Solivan talks about being on the cutting edge of today's bluegrass, the history and tradition that drives him, and what's in store for the future. 

Bluegrass music, like many art forms, experiences waves of both popularity and innovation, but those waves are not necessarily in sync with each other. In recent times, we've seen the O Brother Where Art Thou wave of popularity bring the music into new places, as millions of Americans heard Dan Tyminski's voice through George Clooney's face--an almost sure-fire way to bring an underground art to the mainstream, even for a brief moment. As the years moved on, and the hipness of bluegrass faded back to the core fans and pickers, we hit a spot where a little soul-searching overtook both the players and fans. We had to ask ourselves, what is the future of our music? These discussions have been both positive and vibrant, but while they were taking place, there have been a handful of bands working their way up that, I think, will show us the future of bluegrass.

One of these bands is Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. A couple months ago I started listening to their three studio releases: Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen (2010), On the Edge (2013), and their newest release, Cold Spell (2014). These albums do not always conform to the typical traditional bluegrass sound, yet the musicianship and traditional knowledge have sprouted a very progressive sound that is being accepted in the traditional bluegrass community. This is a feat that is only impressive if you understand the insular nature of the bluegrass industry, where tradition still rules and Nickel Creek keeps getting pushed into the "Americana" category.

I caught up with Frank as he was touring with the Jerry Douglas-led band, The Earls of Leicester (pronounced "Lester"), a Grammy-winning tribute to the heyday of "Lester" Flatt And "Earl" Scruggs. Frank has just joined up with them to take the place of Tim O'Brien, who has Hot Rize commitments.  The slight irony of interviewing someone on the forefront of progressiveness while touring with a traditional throwback band was amusing to both of us. But that's what makes bluegrass so beautiful: no matter how far you go, you're only one degree away from the masters who started it.

"It's been a Flatt and Scruggs bootcamp lately!" Frank jokes. "We've spent a lot of time listening, and also talking about, what their music was about and getting into the little details of Lester and Earl. We're recreating something for people to hear the blueprint of bluegrass music, the initial architecture, before it progressed into another form that we hear on the radio now."

The Earls of Leicester -- Big Black Train and Black Eyed Susie
Raleigh Convention Center -- Oct 4, 2014

Frank and Dirty Kitchen are just coming off a Grammy nomination for their most recent release, Cold Spell. His band features Mike Munford on banjo, Chris Luquette on guitar, and a lifelong friend, Danny Booth, on bass.  One of the first things you notice about the album is they don't stick to the typical boom-chunk, boom-chunk timing that is synonymous with bluegrass. The first track of the album Say It Isn't So, written by Frank's cousin Megan McCormick, makes the statement that this band is not afraid to try new things.

Say It Isn't So

Frank doesn't consciously arrange his songs to push any boundaries within the music. "Everyone comes together and does something that is unique to them, and we'll play as a unit. We're always working on dynamics and the feel of the song."

Dirty Kitchen seems to be that rare occurrence of experienced, master musicians who can put all ego aside and work as a single, creative unit. "Nobody tries to be in front of anyone else," Frank explains. Everyone has a chance to shine in our show and on our records, but when the song is being played, everyone is playing soft."

 Chris Luquette, guitar; Mike Munford, banjo; Frank Solivan, mandolin; Danny Booth, bass.
A lot of bluegrass is written with the bluegrass sound and rhythms in mind, but for Frank it depends on what kind of mood he's in.  "I hear all kinds of stuff, I hear a lot of blends too. Our common denominator is bluegrass, but I've spent a lot of time playing country music, and I've listened to a lot of funk and Beatles. Lately I've been listening to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder."

Frank grew up in California in a very musical family. His grandmother on his father's side played both mandolin and fiddle and participated in acrobatic vaudeville shows with her sisters. His mother's side had classical violin and cello players throughout the family. The bluegrass bug bit him early, as he got a Bill Monroe cassette tape and then started collecting Monroe 8-tracks as well. "We wore out some Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Elvis 8-tracks," he remembers. At 9 years old he heard Newgrass Revival for the first time, "...and they just blew my mind! I'd seen those instruments played before, but they melted my face off! I saw them doing what they wanted to do and not being constricted by what people thought."

Frank started going to the west coast bluegrass festivals at that point, and another band that really made a big impression on him was the Johnson Mountain Boys with Dudley Connell, Tom Adams, Marshall Wilborn, and the great Eddie Stubbs on fiddle.  "They were contemporary in that they were using what they learned in traditional bluegrass, but then brought it to the next level with cleaner harmonies and more structure. I was thinking 'I want to be able to do that!' and make my music as good and creative as it can be."

A couple years ago, the previously mentioned "soul-searching" was kickstarted by Chris Pandolfi, the banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters (one of the other bands who are key to the future of bluegrass). Pandolfi wrote a bluegrass manifesto of sorts, calling on the bluegrass community, and specifically the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association), to become more open to both younger players and bands who don't hold to the strict tradition of the music, such as Yonder Mountain String Band, Avett Bros, and Mumford and Sons.  Bands who have elements of bluegrass in their music, but have reached out to much wider audiences. In typical political fashion, there was a division between the strict traditionalists and the progressives. It's no surprise where Frank falls in the debate. "I think it's common sense when it comes to accepting different types of music.  We do have the so-called bluegrass industry. IBMA wants to further bluegrass music and they're doing a fairly good job lately, especially with the conventions in Raleigh. It seems the umbrella of bluegrass has gotten bigger, but there will always be people who say 'Well, that ain't bluegrass!' But you know what? It is music!"

Frank recalls Chris Thile talking about how genres aren't as clear cut anymore. Thile's description of how the clear-cut walls of genres are starting to blur, as classical musicians are starting to play with folk musicians, and jazz musicians are starting to play with bluegrass musicians, and it made a big impression on him.  "I'd like to see more people trying that stuff.  Traditional bluegrass isn't going anywhere.  When we get into jam sessions we're going to pull out all the traditional stuff because that's common knowledge, and it's not going anywhere. The people that played in the 50's and 60's; they were pushing the boundaries of music, too.  They were doing something different and it caused a stir, and people loved it.  So if the music doesn't progress we won't have an industry or younger generations that listen and find their way back to those roots."

One aspect of being a leader in your field is that the amount of work it takes can almost insulate you from what's going on in the industry around you. "We're working so hard to get down the road and keep everything moving forward that it's kind of insular, so I don't see it from the outside.  We've gotten some of the accolades, which is totally awesome and incredible, but it's hard to see it how the fans see it. It takes a lot of energy to run a business and keep everyone paid."

In 2013, Mike Munford was voted "Banjo Player of the Year" and guitarist Chris Luquette received the "Momentum Award" for Performance Instrumentalist. At the 2014 IBMA awards, the band received 4 nominations: Frank Solivan for Male Vocalist of the Year and Mandolin Player of the Year, Mike Munford for Banjo Player of the Year, and the entire band won Instrumental Group of the Year. Their 2014 release, Cold Spell, was nominated for a Grammy in the Bluegrass Album category. All of this is a testament to the band becoming leaders in the industry, as well as the industry accepting different song structures that are not strictly traditional.

No Life In This Town

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen are what bluegrass music needs these days. They are master musicians who fully understand the history and tradition but aren't afraid to explore new sounds and concepts. We've always had people who fit that description, either outliers or people like Bela Fleck and John Hartford that by sheer force created their own styles. But we haven't necessarily had a cohesive, single unit that had the force to shift the entire bluegrass spectrum, with ease and grace, in a long time. I think we've entered into a paradigm shift with Frank and Dirty Kitchen and some of their peers, such as Infamous Stringdusters, Balsam Range and Steep Canyon Rangers. With excellent songwriting and musicianship, we'll see the rules and expectations loosen and the audiences and fan bases grow.

"M80" A banjo-driven instrumental

While the recording industry retracts each year with fewer album sales, connecting with your fan base becomes even more important. For this, Frank has a few tricks up his sleeve. Frank is known as a great chef and has spent years combining his music and food talents.  "I want to bring people together and have an intimate experience. Connecting with your fans in any way you can is important. I just want to be a good human and have that come across the most. People get to a certain point and just assume you're stuck up or unapproachable, and I don't want any of that. I just want to connect with people on a level that is natural and human."

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Keep up with me here:

Better (Days Go By)

The making of the new album "Cold Spell"

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