Frank Solivan has a pepper problem. His travel kit holds a surge protector, cheesecloth, twine, trash bags, Texas Pete pepper sauce, two varieties of saffron, and peppercorns. But no grinder. Roy Mustelier shows him the electric one in his kitchen. For a man who cooks with his mother’s Dutch oven and his step-grandfather’s pots, this is a modern turn. Solivan will adapt.
Since 2001, Mustelier and Kris Swanson’s living room in Southeast Washington has served as a performance and exhibit space called the Corner Store, and tonight it is Solivan’s dining room. After the meal, Solivan will play his mandolin alongside his bluegrass band, Dirty Kitchen, which was nominated for a 2014 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for “Cold Spell.” The D.C.-based band plays between 80 and 100 shows annually, including at venues in Canada and France. As many as eight times a year, they combine song and supper for “The Dirty Kitchen Experience.”
Solivan, 38, has traded his customary onstage fedora for a black chef’s jacket. He wants all to feel casual and prides himself on following the homespun model set by his mother. Yet this is no potluck — earlier, he drove to Dulles, Va., to meet a supplier from the Blue Ridge Dairy Co. He has been brining Cornish hens for 48 hours.The Experience is a commercial venture, a cooking-cum-music-night staged for anywhere between 20 and 85 people. The guest list is usually determined by the host, and larger groups are steered toward the “one-pot wonder” menu. The first Experience was in spring 2009, a three-course meal at a house concert hosted by food lovers in Crownsville, Md. Now, Solivan wants to reach higher: a cookbook, perhaps, if he can find time to write out the recipes.
Solivan’s mother was in the restaurant business, and as a child he grew up sitting on the counter, stirring the pots, and, as the years passed, chopping and sautéing on his own. His high school nickname was “Chef Boyar-Frank”; he reads Julia Child. For a brief period he worked in catering, but he couldn’t get into “cutting cheese into cubes with a dull knife.” He prefers to cook family-style, spiking traditional recipes with favorite flavors.
“If you have really good ingredients,” he says, “the outcome is gonna be good.”
The other three members of Dirty Kitchen arrive, trying not to get in anyone’s way. Chris Luquette, 25, is the guitarist who received a 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association Momentum Award, which Solivan likes to joke onstage means “most improved.” Mike Munford, 57, also received an IBMA award in 2013, for Banjo Player of the Year. Danny Booth, 34, is a quiet, lanky bassist who surprises with his beautiful singing voice.
Solivan and Mustelier talk about rice: how to coax a batch to rise to the exact rim of its pot. A crowd begins to gather, collecting flutes of prosecco from a side table.
Back in the kitchen, a few loyal friends are readying for service. Tryshah Taylor tells the story of when her parents, who live in Branson, Mo., were too sick to attend a Dirty Kitchen concert. So Solivan brought the band to play a set on their porch instead. Washing a few dishes is the least she can do.
Solivan grew up on a dairy ranch in Modesto, Calif., in a household infused with music and fed by the hearty cooking of his mother, Lorene. He has a traveling spirit inspired in part by his father’s mother — a tumbler, fiddler and vaudeville performer — and, at age 18, Solivan moved to Alaska in a GMC pickup on a friend’s invitation. There he worked in construction and odd jobs while studying music and acquiring skills as a luthier (he built the mandolin he plays onstage). Like the fishermen he met, he took to collecting knives. He also met his future wife, Leah Sturgis.
“He raided my fridge,” Sturgis says, remembering their first date in Juneau. “He cooks eggs perfectly.”
Solivan moved to Nashville in 2000 to record his first solo album, “I Am a Rambler.” For a few months he worked at Bound’ry, a Music Row restaurant known for global cuisine, in roles including caterer, prep cook and bouncer. After a year, Solivan returned to Alaska to marry Sturgis. He joined the Navy and took up the electric guitar in order to play with the Country Current, a Navy band based in the District. Six years playing in the service sharpened his skills and brought financial stability, but he does not miss the push-ups or the political climate of the Navy.
In addition to his paid gigs, Solivan began making appearances on the local bluegrass scene, including the popular Wednesday night open mikes at Madam’s Organ. That is where he met Munford, who co-hosted the series. They teamed with Lincoln Meyers on guitar and Stefan Custodi on bass to release “Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen” in 2010. Solivan showed himself to be a creative promoter: He arrived at his first interview for WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” with a plated lunch for his host.
By 2011, Solivan was auditioning for a new bassist and vocalist. He reached out to Booth, whom he knew from Anchorage, where Solivan played with Booth’s father in the band Rank Strangers. Luquette, who is from Seattle, came aboard in 2012. The next year, the ensemble released “On the Edge,” its debut with the Nashville-based Compass Records, one of bluegrass’s biggest labels.
“Cold Spell,” a follow-up with 10 original songs, was released in 2014. At the 29th annual Washington Area Music Association’s award ceremony (the “Wammies”) in March, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen won in eight of the nine categories in which they were nominated, beating out critical darlings such as rocker Mary Timony and rapper Wale.
Tonight’s guests, who comprise Solivan’s mix of friends, neighborhood chefs, restaurateurs, music and radio personalities, take their seats. The appetizer, a variation on a Caprese salad with tomatoes and pistachios hand-roasted by Solivan, is paired with a bright rosé. Only after he is sure everyone else is fed does Solivan eat, quickly, standing at the stove. “Dinner is served,” he says to himself, stripping the hen with his fingers.
At the table, Roy Mustelier finds himself seated next to Dudley Connell, the lead singer and guitarist of the Seldom Scene, a bluegrass band that started in Bethesdain 1971. When Solivan comes by to say hello and check on the food, Connell wants to know about his recent gig with the Earls of Leicester, a bluegrass super group anchored by dobroist Jerry Douglas that offers tribute to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Solivan played 10 shows as a guest musician.
“Boot camp,” Solivan says appreciatively, referring to the intensity of learning to emulate Flatt’s and Scruggs’s playing styles. As he continues to make his way around the table, the talk turns to bluegrass’s unique sense of community and the humility of even its biggest stars.
“I remember being at Ralph Stanley’s festival, and I looked up and saw Bill Monroe,” Connell says. “He was standing in line to buy a hot dog, just like me.”
The custard dessert with blueberry compote comes out quickly — a little too quickly for the band, which is caught off guard when summoned to play. Vamping to give them some time, Solivan, who also plays violin, readies his mandolin.
“This is the first song I remember that I ever heard,” he says, introducing Hank Locklin’s “Put Me in Your Pocket” as the one that got his mom and dad “sparking.” This is what they sang to his mother, Lorene Gift Solivan, as she passed away last July. She never got to know of her son’s Grammy nomination, or to hear about the studio sessions for a future album tentatively titled “Family, Friends, and Heroes” — for which Solivan had always envisioned her voice in duet. This is the first “Dirty Kitchen Experience” since her death.
He begins, and fumbles the lyrics. For the first time tonight, his showmanship unlaces to show the skin beneath. “Maybe I shouldn’t have started with this one.”
“Two lovers sat one evening,” he sings after a beat. He stamps his foot, which might be for rhythm but seems, here, a gesture of defiance. This is his night. He will not lose it. “When we have to part, dear, there’ll be no sad adieu,” Solivan continues. “For I’ll be in your pocket, and I’ll go along with you.”
Luquette, Booth and Munford take up their instruments. They surround Solivan, joking about the folly of eating and drinking before a show. “They’re going to hear some cold licks,” Munford says. “Ice cold.”
That’s a lie made obvious with the opening riff of “The Letter,” their smoking rendition of the Box Tops’ 1967 hit. They move on to the tribal pluck of “Chief Taghkanic,” an original instrumental. There are no mikes, no pedals, no amps — just four guys, in a room of people hanging on to every note. The recipe is beautiful in its simplicity. Playing great music, much like cooking rice, is a matter of timing and balance. Frank Solivan is determined to keep the pots from boiling over.
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen play at the Common Ground on the Hill Roots Music & Arts Festival in Westminster, Md., on July 12. For tickets and information, go to www.commongroundonthehill.org, or call 410-857-2771. Festival starts at 10 a.m. $10-$25.
Sandra Beasley is a memoirist and poet whose most recent collection is “Count the Waves.” To comment on this story,
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