A world away from Alaska, music is being made that echoes inspiration absorbed here years ago. Songwriter and performer Frank Solivan no longer calls Alaska home, but the connection between his band Dirty Kitchen and the state is strong.
A former Anchorage and Juneau resident, Solivan is now based in the Washington, D.C. area with bandmates Mike Munford, Chris Luquette and Dan Booth, also a former Alaskan. Solivan’s wife, Leah Sturgis, and the band’s booking agent, Martha Stracener Dantzic, also formerly lived in Alaska’s Capital.
Earlier this month, the group attended the 57th annual Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony as nominees in the Best Bluegrass Album category for “Cold Spell,” their most recent release. Solivan recalled the excitement of arriving at the event, where they were coincidentally being seated while their recording played over the loudspeakers.
Solivan sees the nomination as affirmation that Dirty Kitchen is “doing something right.”
“When you’re inside of it, it seems so insular and you’re just working your tail off to make it work,” Solivan said, adding that the nomination serves as “fuel to keep the fire burning.”
Dirty Kitchen is no stranger to recognition. At the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association awards, the group took the title Instrumental Group of the Year, not to mention nominations in a handful of other categories. The win was special for Solivan as it fulfilled a prediction made by his mother, Lorene, who passed away last summer prior to the awards. He recalled her saying that not only was he nominated for the award, but that he would win, and “bigger stuff,” he said.
At the prior year’s IBMA awards, Munford was awarded Banjo Player of the Year and Luquette came away with a Momentum Award in the instrumentalist performance category.
The title track of “Cold Spell” also received recognition by the D.C.-based Songwriters Association of Washington in their 31st annual Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. The song took the contest’s grand prize, which was awarded in January.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen has been a project for about five years, although some of the members’ individual relationships go farther back than that. Solivan and Booth were known to play together in the Anchorage area in the 1990s. Now, the group is looking forward to see what the next years will bring.
Each member brings his own musical influences to the table to create a unique overall sound, although they have “a common denominator of bluegrass,” Solivan said.
Dirty Kitchen’s members also share an interest in building and maintaining their own instruments, which, according to Solivan, enhances each musician’s connection to their instrument of choice. His primary mandolin is one he built from scratch under the tutelage of luthier Roger Siminoff. When they’re not on the road, Munford offers banjo setup and repairs, Booth restores upright basses and Luquette maintains his guitars.
Overall quality and listenability takes priority over adhering to a traditional genre, according to Solivan. Although his group has been categorized in the school of progressive bluegrass or “newgrass,” Solivan is more interested in creating music that “stands the test of time,” he said.
“You’ve got to match the right song with the right combination of players that puts it forth to the listener in a way that is really interesting and catchy,” Solivan said. “I have high expectations of everybody in the band, and they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t already meet those expectations.”
Solivan is also accomplished on the fiddle, which he pulls out for at least a song or two at every show, and on the guitar, which he primarily played for a time in the United States Navy Band’s Country Current country-bluegrass group. Country Current was what pulled Solivan away from Juneau, where he had been living around the time he auditioned. The position offered him the opportunity to do music full-time, which wasn’t really possible for him in Alaska.
“I hadn’t had a really sweet job playing music before,” Solivan said.
The job included more than playing, and Solivan picked up band management skills that still come in handy in his current job. But after a while in the Navy, he felt the songwriter’s calling.
“I wasn’t being an artist there, so I felt the need to get out and do my own thing,” Solivan said. “Lo and behold, it’s working out.”
Since striking out on his own, he has played with many giants of the music world, including many of them as guest artists on his own recordings. “Cold Spell” features guest artists such as Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, John Cowan, Leon Alexander and Megan McCormick, Solivan’s cousin. Solivan is currently spending a couple of weeks sitting in on tour with Jerry Douglas and The Earls of Leicester, who took home the Grammy in the same category in which Dirty Kitchen was nominated.
“It’s kind of an affirmation to be able to play music with some of these guys,” Solivan said.
Solivan also values collaboration with his family members, many of whom are musical. His next recording project will include relatives, friends and musical heroes as guest artists. The track list will include songs that honor the memory of his mother, who often sang with him.
Solivan and Dirty Kitchen last performed in Juneau in 2012, and he said they hope to return again soon.
For more information about Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, visit www.dirtykitchenband.com.
• Libby Stringer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.