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The Frank Solivan Interview

By Dan Miller
January 4, 2015 - 5:30 pm

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Compass Records recording artist Frank Solivan Compass Records recording artist Frank Solivan

Frank Solivan is riding high these days and for good reason. His band Dirty Kitchen is the recipient of multiple music industry awards including a Grammy Nomination in Best Bluegrass Album category for their Compass Records release Cold Spell.

The band's music, solidly based in bluegrass, moves from progressive to traditional, modern to roots-based, and then way, way outside. It's a combination they effortlessly pull off and one I personally find very appealing.

Not content to play some of the best acoustic music on the scene, Frank is the only award-winning mandolin player we can think of to also build the superb sounding instrument he plays on stage and in the studio.

Rounding out solid credentials as a Renaissance man, he can flex his chops in the kitchen and routinely hosts events few would dare: a mandolin workshop or concert followed by a gourmet meal he prepares for his audience. The man clearly enjoys life.

All that remains for us is a way to lure him into the kitchen of the Mandolin Cafe. We already have his music. Now all we need is the chef.

 — Scott Tichenor
     Mandolin Cafe

About the author: Dan Miller has served as the editor and publisher of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine and has been playing acoustic music on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass for nearly thirty years. He has owned and operated his own publishing company since 1988 and FGM Records since 1997. Dan is based in Columbia, Missouri and leads acoustic music workshops all over the U.S.

Frank Solivan

Over the past five years Frank Solivan and his band Dirty Kitchen have become a powerhouse on the bluegrass circuit. Individually, each member of this band is at the top of their game as instrumentalists, vocalists and songwriters. Collectively the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is a band that solidly connects with each other and as a result they have been connecting with bluegrass audiences everywhere they go.

The band's notoriety has brought its leader's singing, songwriting, and mandolin playing skills to the attention of many bluegrass fans and mandolin enthusiasts. But this is not Frank Solivan's first rodeo and these are not his only talents.

Better (Days Go By)

Avid bluegrass fans will also remember his years with the Navy Band, Country Current. While in the Navy, Frank mainly played electric guitar, and some fiddle. His abilities on those instruments rival his mandolin prowess. Additionally, Frank built his own mandolin and is a talented self-taught chef.

Frank Solivan enjoys connecting with people and making them happy. He achieves these goals through music and food. He said, "Music and food bring people together. It doesn't matter where you are or what language you speak. If you share food or music, you will connect and form a relationship. If you clink wine glasses it opens the door for a relationship, playing music is the same. If I share a meal or pick a song with someone, we now have something in common. There is an emotional response. We are now pals and we can revisit that friendship whenever we meet." Whether he is preparing food or playing music, Frank's key ingredients are "love and energy."

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

L-R: Chris Luquette, guitar; Mike Munford, banjo; Frank Solivan; Danny Booth, bass.

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen

Frank's love and passion for music and food are rooted in his family. He said, "Both of my parents come from musical families, especially my Dad. My Dad is from Fresno, California, and he was the 9th of ten kids. His mother (my grandmother) and her sisters were Vaudeville tumblers and musicians. My grandmother played the mandolin and fiddle. My Dad plays the banjo, guitar, bass, and some mandolin. Whenever we had family gatherings, which was often, there was a lot of food and music."

When Frank was young his family rented a house on a dairy farm. Frank said, "There were mules, cows, horses, turkey, geese, dogs, cats, wide open spaces, and a musical instrument in every corner of the house." Frank started "messing around" with the fiddle at the age of five. His father gave him some great advice when he got started. He said, "Make every note count and do it your own way." From the start he was learning how to play the music that he heard at family gatherings — old country, bluegrass and fiddle tunes. By the time he was twelve or thirteen he was mostly interested in playing bluegrass and had also started learning how to play the banjo.

In addition to playing at their own family gatherings, the Solivans also attended music festivals and fiddle contests. One of the biggest was the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite. Frank said that one year the festival was cancelled due to a fire. The Solivans had a "fire festival" in their home and what seemed like four to five hundred people showed up. Frank said, "There was music around our house all the time. It was good to be a part of that. It helped push family tensions aside and got people to connect."

In the late 1980s, when Frank was about twelve or thirteen years old he attended California Bluegrass Association's annual Father's Day Bluegrass Festival. He and some of his young friends were picking near the backstage area when California bluegrass legend Vern Williams walked by and told the kids, "You should be playing on stage!"

Frank Solivan Growing Up

L-R: with his father, Frank Solivan, Sr., and with Chubby Wise.

Young Frank Solivan

Williams was serious because he arranged for the young band to get up on stage and play during the lunch break the next day. That performance led to Frank forming his first band, Generation Gap. They continued to perform every year at the Grass Valley festival. The band also had an opportunity to open for Ralph Stanley at a show in California.

Frank's father, Frank, Sr., developed this "kids on stage" feature at the Grass Valley festival into a regular kids program at the event. He still runs the Kids on Bluegrass program every year. Young people who attend the festival practice together for several days and then get up on stage on Sunday afternoon and perform for the audience. What started out as four kids on stage in the late 1980s has grown into dozens of kids getting together to learn a handful of songs and perform them as an ensemble. It is one of the festival highlights for the kids and their parents. As Frank got older, he would help his father teach the tunes and stagecraft to the younger kids.

During his high school years Frank played the violin in school, acoustic fiddle with his family, and electric fiddle in country bands. With the country bands he had the opportunity to open shows for various nationally touring country acts who were traveling through California's central valley, such as Confederate Railroad, Suzy Bogguss, Sammy Kershaw, and Terry McBride and the Ride. He also played in the high school orchestra and sang in the high school choir.

When Frank was nine or ten years old he met Ginger Boatwright, the singer and rhythm guitar player in The Doug Dillard Band, at the Strawberry Festival. The two picked together and became friends. They swapped mailing addresses and began writing to each other. Frank recalls that one time, Ginger had one of his letters with her when she went to church. Bill Monroe sat next to Ginger in church that day and she had Monroe sign Frank's letter and she sent it back to him.

By the time Frank was eighteen, Ginger Boatwright had moved to Alaska and encouraged him to move there after high school (with his mom) and play fiddle at a few summer festivals with her. Later, she asked Frank if he also played the mandolin. Although Frank had not spent much time at all on the mandolin he said, "Yea, its my main instrument!" and he got the job. He said, "I had the left hand techniques from the fiddle and the right hand from the guitar, so I figured that it would be easy enough to combine the two and play mandolin." At age eighteen Frank moved to Alaska.

While he was in Alaska, Frank auditioned on violin for the Chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and was awarded a scholarship to study violin performance with Walter Olivaris. In addition to playing with Ginger Boatwright and attending college classes, Frank also did odd jobs to make ends meet. He drove forklifts, delivery trucks, and a school bus. He also worked at a plumbing and heating warehouse. He stayed in school for about a year and worked with Ginger Boatwright for about two years. Then, in 2000, he moved to Nashville and recorded a solo project. The stay in Nashville didn't last long though. He decided to move back to Alaska to continue playing music in various Alaska bands. However, his musical and professional life would soon change in a big way.

Country Current

Frank with the Navy band Country Current.

Country Current

Frank met the members of the U.S. Navy's Washington, D.C.-based bluegrass and country band Country Current at the Grass Valley Festival in California. He had a chance to jam with the members of the band and a mutual respect developed. Frank ran into the band again at the Anchorage Folk Festival and they informed him that the electric guitar player in their country band was getting ready to retire in about a year. They asked Frank, "Do you play electric guitar? You should audition for the job!" Frank said, "I bought an electric guitar and started learning how to play it. My girlfriend said, "Are you crazy?! The Navy?! Washington, D.C.!?"

While Frank was preparing for his audition on the electric guitar, Country Current was scheduled to appear at Wintergrass in Bellevue, Washington. The band member who played fiddle and mandolin could not make the show due to a family medical emergency. They saw Frank in the lobby of the hotel and asked if he would sit in with them. He was happy to learn the tunes and the arrangements and play the show. Frank said, "When I jammed with the band in Grass Valley and Anchorage, we had really hit it off musically. I think that is why they felt comfortable asking me to sit in at the Wintergrass show."

When the Navy announced that they were taking auditions for the soon-to-be-open spot in the band, Frank was ready and sent in a pre-audition recording. The Navy liked what they heard and scheduled him for a live audition. They sent him a CD with 20 tunes to learn and he had another six months to prepare. After reviewing many applicants, the Navy invited Frank to an audition in Washington, D.C. They put him through a full day's worth of auditions. Six months later, he came back for a second audition and was offered the job. After ten and a half weeks of Navy boot camp, he reported for duty with Country Current in July 2003. Two days later, he played his first show with the band on the National Mall in Washington. He played electric guitar in the country band and mandolin and fiddle in the bluegrass band for close to six years.

Country Current's schedule was rigorous. They rehearse three to four days a week and perform over 200 shows a year. Frank eventually became the musical director for the band. Although he thoroughly enjoyed his time with the band, he said, "In that band we were just playing music, we weren't making new music. I wanted to be creating new arrangements and writing and performing new songs. Early in 2008 I let them know that I wasn't going to re-enlist. I gave them a year's notice so that they could start looking for a replacement."

The Making of Cold Spell

Frank's goal after leaving the Navy was to form his own band. In anticipation of his departure from the Navy, Frank started to put his band together in the Fall of 2008. The first two musicians that he recruited were Mike Munford on banjo and John Miller on guitar. Shortly thereafter, John left to join Junior Sisk's band and Frank hired Lincoln Meyers to fill the guitar spot. Frank left the Navy in May of 2009 and the band embarked on their first tour. Since that time they have recorded and released three CDs. Their newest, Cold Spell, was released August 12, 2014. They have also become a favorite on the bluegrass festival circuit. Currently the band consists of Frank on mandolin and fiddle, Mike Munford on banjo, Chris Luquette on guitar, and Danny Booth on bass.

Bluegrass fans have shown their appreciation and respect for Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen through the International Bluegrass Music Association's (IBMA) awards show. In 2013 Mike Munford was voted "Banjo Player of the Year" and Chris Luquette received the "Momentum Award" for Performance, Instrumentalist. For the 2014 IBMA Awards, the band received 4 nominations: Frank Solivan for Male Vocalist of the Year, Frank Solivan for Mandolin Player of the Year, Mike Munford for Banjo Player of the Year, and the entire band has been nominated for Instrumental Group of the Year which they won. These nominations attest the band's talent and popularity.

Grammy Nominated Cold Spell

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen - Cold Spell

In addition to writing, singing, playing the mandolin and fiddle and leading one of the hottest bands in bluegrass, Frank has also taken the time to learn how to build mandolins. After playing a Michael Lewis mandolin for about 12 years and learning how to make small repairs and do his own set up work, Frank decided that he wanted to learn how to build one for himself. In August, 2102 he attended a mandolin-building workshop taught by Roger Siminoff in California. After the week long workshop was over Frank had the beginning of a new mandolin. He continued to work on the mandolin in his spare time and had it "strung up in the white" by the summer of 2013. Totally stained and finished by the end of September, 2014. He said, "It turned out to be an incredible mandolin. It was beginner's luck. It doesn't look as clean as a CNC mandolin in some spots, and you can tell it's hand made. For me, the most important things are playability and sound. This mandolin has both."

Frank Solivan's Self-Built Mandolin

Frank Solivan's Self-Built Mandolin

Regarding his choice of strings and picks for the mandolin, Frank is always experimenting and changing. He typically will use D'Addario EXP strings with gauges of 11.5, 16, 26, and 41. However, he says that he'll change the A string back and forth between a 16 and 17 and change the G string between a 40 and a 41. He said, "I'm always looking for the right balance between tension and projection."

Regarding his pick choices, Frank said he played sea turtle shell picks for a long time, but has started using Blue Chip picks because they require less maintenance. He likes the CT 55 but also uses a tri-corner 50 RB and 60 RB. "RB" stands for round bevel. He also said that he will change picks depending on the song. For ballads he likes to use a Pro Plec 1.5 because it is thicker and has an edge that is rounder. He likes to use a beveled Blue Chip for fast bluegrass songs. Sometimes he also likes to use a Wegen pick.

When asked about suggestions that he might have for mandolin players, Frank said, "Timing and groove are the most crucial things. I think that if people spent as much time learning and practicing rhythm as they did lead, the world would be a better place." Frank added, "A lot of students want a magic pill. What I've discovered is that it comes down to a lot of hard work and dedication. Time, effort, and energy."

Frank is often called upon to teach workshops. When he is teaching, he focuses on the fundamentals of good technique, producing good tone, and working to improve timing. He likes his students to work on developing music at slow tempos before they try to play fast. He said, "If you can't play it slow, you will not be able to play it fast." For timing, he likes to teach mandolin players how to interact with the bass and the guitar to form the core rhythmic structure of a band. He said, "The bass and the mandolin are the yin and yang." He adds, "If you want to learn mandolin rhythm listen to Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, and Adam Steffey. They are the groove masters."

Frank Solivan in the Kitchen

L-R: Two of Frank's favorite recipes: Herb-roasted cornish game hen with carmelized onion and garlic; his famous ginger chicken and rice.

Frank Solivan in the Kitchen

Occasionally, Frank hosts his own mandolin workshop events near his home in Alexandria, Virginia. The event is structured such that Frank teaches an afternoon mandolin workshop and then cooks a meal for all of the workshop attendees in the evening. Connecting with people through his love and passion for food and music is something that Frank Solivan does very well. Once you've picked a tune with him, or broken bread with him, you've got a new life long friend. Good friends, good music, and good food-in Frank Solivan's world it doesn't get better than that.

Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen

L-R: Danny Booth, bass; Frank Solivan; Mike Munford, banjo; Chris Luquette, guitar.

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen

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Reader Comments

Greg Allen
January 04, 2015 07:30 PM
Had the pleasure of seeing Frank and his band in Raleigh at IBMA in the fall of 2013. Just an outstanding group of musicians. His guitarist can really pick. If you have a chance to see these guys, do it, you will not be disappointed.
Michael Lewis
January 05, 2015 01:33 AM
The last photo is flipped, or the title should read "right to left".

Those kids can PLAY! Son! It's a good thing they don't play everything at lightning speed because I can't listen as fast as they CAN play.
Mandolincelli
January 05, 2015 12:27 PM
Had the pleasure to learn from Frank Solivan at last year's Mandolin Symposium. He is a true gift. Saw him again at the Palms in Winters, CA. These guys put on an awesome show and their musicianship is impeccable. Then last weekend my wife and I rented a movie called "Pride" and we noticed Frank's rendition of "Across the Great Divide" was used in the movie. It's nice to see him get the recognition and airplay he deserves.
grandcanyonminstrel
January 07, 2015 12:32 AM
Frank, Danny,and the rest of Dirty Kitchen come by the shop regularly when they pass through Asheville. ALWAYS a good time- great musicians, yes; more importantly they are just great folks to spend time with. 'Gotta let him loose in my kitchen next time!

j.
www.condino.com
Michael Lewis
January 09, 2015 02:00 AM
Thanks for straightening out the photo, now it agrees with the caption.
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