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Solivan turns to family, friends, heroes

By Fred Smith, March 2016

After scoring a 2015 IBMA nomination for Best Bluegrass Album for "Cold Spell," Frank Solivan tried something a little different this time around - an album of songs recorded by "Family, Friends and Heroes" (Compass).

In an earlier musical life, Solivan served as stalwart in Country Current, the Navy's touring bluegrass band. Solivan left the service about seven years ago and formed Dirty Kitchen, a tip of the hat to his background and continuing efforts as a chef.

Solivan grew up in an extended musical family: he spent time in Alaska and now operates out of the Washington, D.C. area — long a center of bluegrass activity, dating back to the days of The Seldom Scene in the early ‘70s.

"Technically, it's not a Dirty Kitchen record," says Solivan of "Family, Friends and Heroes." "It's my family, friends and heroes, although my band is on more than half of the record."

"The first few songs we started recording in November 2014, and then all of last year into March and April 2015. Over the period of six or seven months, we got everything kind of situated."

Solivan and Dirty Kitchen have in recent years become a favorite of festival goers around the country. Solivan admirably plays mandolin and fiddle, and his Dirty Kitchen mates — Chris Luquette on guitar and Mike Munford, former IBMA Banjo player of the year, paired with Danny Booth on bass create a rich driving sound that matches any band on the circuit. Booth has returned to Alaska, but the latest Dirty Kitchen member, Jeremy Middleton, also played with Solivan in Country Current.

"Family, Friends and Heroes" is a nice mix of tunes written by Solivan, and familiar country or bluegrass songs with textured arrangement and inspired playing. Family plays a big role in the record, not the least of which is a recording of "Wayfaring Stranger," featuring Solivan's late mother, Lorene on lead vocal. "We were all in the studio at the same time at Airshow Recording Studio in Tacoma Park, Md. They've mastered most of my records, but they also have a recording studio. We (Dirty Kitchen) were the house band for the recording studio, so people could see what they sounded like on tape. So, my mom was helping me with the food, and I said to her "Hey let's get my mom in here. There was no rehearsal or anything. Everything was right there like you hear it on the recording — my band and her. It's an all in one room kind of thing and it just went down."

Cousin Megan McCormick, who is part of the Jenny Lewis touring band, contributed on several cuts.

Solivan's father, Frank. Sr., plays a key role on "Family, Friends, and Heroes" Solivan Jr. says, "He just says, ‘where and when?' and he's on it. He's just really tickled to be on a recording with Rob Ickes, Mike Bub and Ronnie McCoury. Just yesterday, I was driving down the road and listening to WAMU's Bluegrass Country, and they were playing the song. So, I called my dad up and I said "Hey. I'm listening to you on the radio."

For Frank, Jr. having his dad on the album was a real blessing "I was talking to Rob Ickes the other day, and I was saying ‘Who is that on the guitar?' And we had to go look at the liner notes, and it was my dad. And Rob says ‘You're dad was great.' "

The "Friends" include the Hensley, Ickes and Ronnie McCoury. And the "Heroes" are the real deal: Sam Bush on some cuts and Del McCoury on Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman." "Del came in thinking we were going to cut ‘Devil Woman,'" says Solivan, "but it was ‘Pretty Woman' we were planning on. Del nailed it."

"It was really kind of cool. He's humble and a great guy. And as we're recording his voice keeps getting stronger and stronger. Everybody else's voice is wearing out, and he's getting stronger."

Another standout is Solivan's collaboration with Bush on the iconic Bill Browning tune "Dark Hollow." "Sam came into the studio with a bunch of songs. He came in prepared with ‘I Am A Rambler' and ‘Cazenovia Casanova' (both are on the CD). I played fiddle or guitar on those songs. But we were all set up, and I said "Do you want to have some fun?" and Sam's like ‘Sure, let's go.' And the first thing that came to mind was ‘Dark Hollow.' We talked it through a little bit and then we just jammed. It was really fun."

Solivan and Dirty Kitchen have an ambitious schedule over the next few months to support the record. But, the question remains whether the record supports live shows or live shows drive demand for the CD.

Solivan says, "One, you need people to be interested in your music, so you need to get out there and tour. But it's hard to get out and tour and have people show up unless you have a product where people are playing it on the radio and saying ‘Hey these guys are playing at this place, so check ‘em out. Here's one of their tracks.' If you make a record, you hope it's going to get a lot of airplay. The actual hard copy sales of a record are kind of going away. You kind of rely upon digital sales. But the thing about bluegrass, people do want the actual hard copy, which is great, but not as much as in years past. Personally, I like to read the liner notes, see what track is playing and kind of get a feel for the record, but that may be just coming from the days of vinyl. With that, you're part of it somehow, and you're more connected to it.