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Salamandar Crossing offers a different bluegrass sound

By Jon Weisberger, July 1997

Though he probably doesn't know it, John Hartford can take some responsibility for the creation of one of New England's hottest bluegrass bands, Northampton, Mass.'s Salamander Crossing.

"Hartford was scheduled to do a workshop at a local music store back in 1991," says Salamander Crossing's guitarist Jeff Kelliher. "He never made it, but that's where (bassist] Andrew Kinsey and our original banjo player, Tim Farnham, met and started picking."

Not long afterward, they were joined by Kelliher and fiddler Rani Arbo. Kelliher says, "People got wind that we were doing some picking, and we actually got asked to do some things."

Six years later, Salamander Crossing has evolved from that modest beginning to a nationally touring act with two albums on the Signature Sounds label, a new and well-respected banjo player and a fistful of rave reviews from publications ranging from Bluegrass Unlimited to the Boston Globe to the radio-oriented Gavin Report.

The band's CDs, 1995's self-titled debut and 1996's "Passion Train," combine originals from Kelliher, Arbo and Kinsey with tunes showing off the wide-ranging tastes and interests of its members - tunes ranging from Bruce Springsteen, Shawn Colvin and Lennon/McCartney to Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan.

"We do Bill Monroe songs. We respect the tradition. We wouldn't be playing these instruments if we didn't," says Kelliher. "But we want to honor the original innovator by being open ourselves. Bluegrass is a young music; if it's going to stay alive, it's going to have to grow."

That approach has won them a lot of fans, not only at the folk-oriented venues they started out in (and continue to play), but at more "hard-core" bluegrass events as well.

"When we're at a bluegrass festival, we are clearly a different bird," the guitarist explains. "For festival promoters who understand the need for diversity, we fit in well when we are one of many colors."

Kelliher cites June's Boston Bluegrass Union-organized Joe Val Festival.

"The headliners there were Doyle Lawson and Bob Paisley and Southern Grass, two traditionally-oriented bands, but we did very well, and felt a good camaraderie with the other musicians."

Kelliher says Salamander Crossing's typical audiences are "more the folk or country or roots types. We perform at a lot of coffeehouses and music halls," with bluegrass festivals filling out the band's busy schedule. That's in line with the group's strongest appeal, and its view of its role.

"We look at our role as sort of ambassadors. Our vocal approach is what's loved by folk and roots audiences," Kelliher notes. "We use different structures of harmony than a lot of more traditional bluegrass. When we work on new songs, people just sort of fall into line. It's very natural, without a lot of intellectual work."

The latest participant in that work is banjoist David Dick, formerly with another popular Massachusetts-based band, Southern Rail.

Salamander Crossing has a bit of a complicated banjo history, according to Kelliher. "Tim actually got the group started, but he went off to school in Ann Arbor. We worked as a trio for awhile and even had another banjo player for a bit. When we made our first album, we used (Rounder recording artist) Tony Furtado on the banjo, but then Tim came back for a year, and so he appears on 'Passion Train.' Now we've got David, and we're very glad to have him. He's sort of our bluegrass touchstone."

Still, though Dick may represent the bluegrass core in the group, Kelliher says "one of the things David says he's delighted about (in joining Salamander Crossing) is the chance to play guitar and mandolin."

That's because the band isn't afraid to drop the traditional five-string when they think it's the right move. "The songs we choose to do will determine the instruments we use," he says.

Indeed, it's Salamander Crossing's wide-ranging choice of material that has attracted a lot of the favorable attention the band's received. The first album contained four originals (two by Kinsey, one each from Arbo and Kelliher) and one traditional song, as well as works from Kate Wolf, Bruce Cockburn plus The Beatles's "Things We Said Today."

The newer album, while heavier on traditional tunes and originals (five this time), also shows broad influences, with songs from Tim O'Brien, Monroe and Rowan - and Springsteen ("Two Faces"). Kelliher laughs, saying, "It wasn't by design, but each of our first two albums has a song from a 'mega-star.'"

The band is trying to take a little more time before recording its next project, developing material for trial before festival and coffeehouse audiences.

"We like to try out material," Kelliher says, "but we haven't had the luxury, especially on 'Passion Train.' Our first album did well enough that our label wanted another one quickly. We're taking more time this time around."

They expect to finish touring in mid-November and get into the studio for the next album by the end of the year.

"We have a short list of producers we're considering, and we're making some demos to give an idea of what we want to have on the next project - songs that cover the ground from singer/songwriter to a bluegrass feel, with strong banjo."

The group plans a spring release.

In the meantime, the members of Salamander Crossing will have a busy summer, with appearances at both bluegrass and folk festivals, including the prestigious Philadelphia and Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals, while enjoying the favorable attention they've gotten in the wake of "Passion Train."

Not that they're resting on their laurels; at the close of our interview, Kelliher laughs and notes that he's started playing "resonator guitar. Not dobro, not with a slide; just regular-style playing on a guitar with a resonator. It gives a different sound, and we're always looking out for that."

Which is as good a recipe for success as any.