Frank Solivan has worn a lot of hats: a military issue one during his six-year stint in the Navy bluegrass band, a chef’s hat during his restaurant days and headgear that would combat the cold when he lived in Alaska.
That’s probably why the singer, picker and songwriter is so comfortable shifting from the kitchen to the stage with his band Dirty Kitchen in a single night. It’s probably also why he can cover so much territory on his new album, On the Edge, and bring top-tier guests like his cousin Megan McCormick, Rob Ickes and Tim O’Brien along for the ride.
You’ve spent time in some contexts that few other bluegrassers can claim — one being Alaska and the other being the Navy. How small is the Alaskan bluegrass scene? The only Alaskan bluegrass musicians I’ve ever heard of are related to you, were tutored by you or are in your band.
Solivan: (laughs) You know, there’s a pretty good scene there. I moved up there from California when I was 18. I actually heard about the Alaskan music scene through a friend of mine, Ginger Boatwright. … Long story short, she invited me up there after I had said something about moving to Montana with my mom. … My first weekend in Alaska was at a music festival, and I pulled up in my old ’63 GMC pickup truck and met the core group of people that were like instant family and friends. There are some really great pickers up there, some great aspiring pickers and a huge population of music lovers there for sure. I was pretty fortunate to be catapulted into that scene right away.
And I come from a really big musical family, so it just felt natural. We would always get together and go to music festivals, or at family gatherings, we’d have big spreads of food and everybody’d start whipping out instruments.
Now I do this thing called “The Dirty Kitchen Experience,” where I take that love of food and music, and I put ‘em together and cook for people.
I’ve read about that. You do that at your house concerts.
Yeah. It’s a night where I don’t really make a lot of money or anything, but it’s all about connecting with people and fostering a relationship.
The bluegrass association with food goes way back — to Martha White sponsorships. The food you make isn’t country cooking so much as artisanal fare. What difference do you think it makes that you’re pairing your music with, say, herb roasted Cornish game hen as opposed to biscuits?
I love a good biscuit, though. Don’t get me wrong.
I think when somebody sees a really beautiful plate of finely prepared food, they want to eat it — as opposed to food that’s just kinda slopped on a plate. … I just want people to give my music a chance, and I think it’s easier to do when it’s presented well. I want to have a nice, rehearsed band but having plenty of room for experimentation and soloing. The same with the food that I cook. I want there to be a really good presentation.
You’re of a generation of musicians who were wowed not only by first and second generation pickers but by bands like New Grass Revival, who were doing a funky, youthful hybrid thing. What did that do for your musical imagination?
It’s funny you say that because we were just listening to a New Grass Revival show from the Strawberry Music Festival. I was there. I was 9 years old, in the front row with my dad and cousins and some other family members. I could hear my dad applauding and whistling. He has a distinctive whistle.
My whole family plays music. … All those instruments — the banjo, bass, mandolin, fiddle — I’d seen them all growing up, but I didn’t realize what the potential was. I was really blown away by what they could do and what these guys were doing — Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, John Cowan and Pat Flynn. I’ve always remembered that.
New Grass Revival famously covered pop and rock songs. For the new album, you refashioned the Box Tops ‘60s pop song “The Letter.” How did that one find its way into your repertoire?
I’ve always dug that song, and I always thought it would be a cool tune to do with bluegrass instrumentation. Several years ago, a friend of mine name Angelica Grimm — great singer — was wanting to cut a record, so she asked me to produce it. I was gathering some songs, and I thought it’d be interesting to try it out. … Now it’s probably our most-requested song wherever we go — that and another song from our last record called “July, You’re a Woman,” which is not a typical bluegrass song, either.
As for songwriting, every genre has its share of songs about how love makes people crazy. But your song “On the Edge of Letting Go” doesn’t just use that as a metaphor. It’s about mental illness and alienation. What convinced you that that could translate into a song, especially a bluegrass song?
Well, I don’t know if I would even call it bluegrass. I would just call it a song. … It was inspired by someone who suffers deeply from mental illness. There’s this point where you can only do so much, and the person that may have been there before the disease got so bad is seemingly gone. You have to at some point let go, but at least remember. … It’s this weird balancing act kind of place that I don’t know very many songs that have been written about.
Since that’s the title track of the album, people are also applying it to where you fit in the musical landscape.
Yeah, on the edge. It’s kind of where our band lies. … And that’s how we like to play too. We get in front of an audience and we wanna stretch out. … We’ll go for stuff in our solos that I don’t know if we’re gonna make it out alive or not, but somehow we do. We haven’t had any crash-and-burn moments yet.