Since leaving the cold climes of Alaska for the bluegrass hotbed of Washington, D.C., Frank Solivan has built a reputation as a monster mandolinist — and become a major festival attraction with his band, Dirty Kitchen. Their respect and deep understanding of the tradition collides, live on stage, with jazz virtuosity creating an unforgettable, compelling performance, which folks can see when the band plays Feb. 28 at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.
So, how did a Central California kid get to Alaska just to end up across the continent in Washington, D.C.? We had to ask.
“Back when I was 18, I graduated from high school and moved from Central Valley, California, to Alaska. I drove my pickup truck up there,” according to Solivan. “I was with my mom, and also I was invited to play music up there with Ginger Boatwright. She was the singer and guitar player for the Doug Dillard Band. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to hang out and play it by ear.’ We had a little bit of family up there, so we stayed with them. My mom got a job and then I went off and moved all around Alaska.
"Long story short is, I loved it and stayed. I worked all kinds of jobs, from explosives, to a perforating service, to driving trucks and delivery vehicles, to driving a school bus and being a substitute school teacher, to construction … whatever I could do that would allow me to go hunting and fishing and play music.”
Nothing like a breadth of experience to fall back on in case the music gig doesn’t pan out.
“I played with a lot of bands and went to the University of Alaska in Anchorage and studied violin performance,” Solivan continued. “And then heard of an audition for the U.S. Navy Band in Washington D.C., for the country band and bluegrass band, and when they had an opening, they offered me the job."
It’s starting to make a little more sense now.
“The next thing you know I’m going to boot camp, doing about a million pushups. Anyway, Leah — who is my wife now but was my girlfriend at the time — and I moved to the D.C. area in 2003 and I reported for duty. We got locked in here (D.C.) and I did six years with the Navy Band,” Solivan said, somewhat mournfully.
“I decided at the five-year mark that I needed to get out and I gave them my notice. I needed to get out and make music. It was a good job and I was proud to serve, but for me, I needed to be an artist. I needed to make music, not just play music.”
After the Navy, Solivan decided to form his own band. Besides Solivan on mandolin, the current lineup of Dirty Kitchen includes banjoist Mike Munford, 2013 IBMA banjo player of the year, award-winning guitarist Chris Luquette and bassist Jeremy Middleton. The quartet simmers a progressive bluegrass stew of infinite instrumental, vocal and songwriting skills featured once again on the just released album "If You Can't Stand the Heat."
The band was named instrumental group of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association for the second time in 2016, with a third nomination in 2017. Its critically acclaimed album "Cold Spell" earned a 2015 Grammy nomination for best bluegrass album of the year,
The band name (you knew we’d have to get there sometime!) is a reference to the gourmet meals Solivan prepares for friends and family and the title of one of his instrumental songs. To keep his ‘cooking chops’ as well as ‘mandolin chops,’ Solivan also stages “The Dirty Kitchen Experience,” followed by (what else) “a Dirty Kitchen house concert.”
While it’s unlikely Guitar Masters fans will be able to personally experience this rather unlikely combination (when the "house" is nearly 550 folks), we’ll look forward to another time we can invite Solivan to a slightly more intimate venue to show off BOTH sets of chops!
Appearing on the bill with Dirty Kitchen will be fellow Americana music legends, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.
Rick Kreiser is the founder of Guitar Masters concert series.