California Report – Phil Salazar

Phil Salazar (on fiddle), with Phil Salazar & The Kin Folk

This month we are thrilled to chat with Southern California bluegrass legend musician and instructor, Phil Salazar. Phil Salazar and the Kin Folk have been playing their unique mix of traditional music with rock, blues, country, jazz, Irish, pop, and bluegrass for over 30 years, and by any standard still have a lot of gas left in their tank.

DB: Hi Phil. Its great to reacquaint you with CBA audiences. What have you been up to since the last time you played the Fathers Day Festival?

PS: I last played for CBA in 1985. So, a lot has gone on since then. The band I played with at Grass Valley is essentially the same band I’m playing with today, just the name has changed over the 35 years. From the Phil Salazar Band to the Acousticats to the Rincon Ramblers and now Phil Salazar and the Kin Folk. For five years I recorded five albums and toured all over the country with John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I’ve played a lot with Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead. Over the course of time I’ve recorded 11 albums with various different bands. I toured around the world with classical violinist Gilles Apap playing bluegrass for his encores. I teach private lessons and opened a fiddle shop down here in Ventura, California. Just to name a few things that have kept me busy.

DB: You are playing the CBA Fathers Day Festival this year as a showcase band. Tell us how that came about and what it means to return?

PS:  I’ve been going in and out of the band business over the last 33 years since I played the Father’s Day Festival. Right now, I’m back in, and we played at the Parkfield festival last Summer. After hearing my band Brenda Hough wrote a great review about my new CD in the CBA Breakdown. So, I thought maybe it’s time to get back to the CBA Fathers Day Festival.

DB: So you’ve been playing this progressive traditional music for quite a while.

PS: From very early childhood, I grew up playing in my father’s symphony. When I was 17 years old I heard Vassar Clements play Lonesome Fiddle Blues, and I was hooked! My other big fiddle influence was Richard Greene. Both Vassar and Richard were influenced by rock, jazz and bluegrass and played plugged in, so that’s what I did. I started fiddling in 1972 and played what I liked. I didn’t know it was progressive. I just thought it was good. There have always been progressive bluegrass bands: the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Earl Scruggs Review, the Osborne Brothers, and Peter Rowan’s Seatrain. Even Dr. Banjo played with a phase shifter and Nick Forster played electric bass. By the way, it was good to see the Traveling McCoury’s and Rob Ickes plugged in at this year’s Strawberry Music Festival using echoes, phase-shifters, preamps and distortion peddles, playing jam-band material.

DB: Who are some non-traditional music influences?

PS: I’ve also been influenced by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan, the Beach Boys, Joe Pass, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Linda Ronstadt, David Grisman, and a few hip hop artists.

DB: I just saw you at the Strawberry Music Festival. That’s some band. Tell us about them.

PS: Thank you. These guys are definitely my kinfolk. Bill Knopf on banjo and guitar – 34 years in the band, a Los Angeles area “A” list musician. Rick Borella on electric bass – 34 years in the band. Newcomers Tom Corbett on mandolin and guitar – 23 years in the band and another L.A. “A” lister, and Bill Flores on dobro, guitar, and accordion – 20 years in the band. He’s the busiest musician in Ventura.

DB: You may be known for playing non-traditional material but I was listening to the Life On the Edge album on Spotify and the traditional stuff like Monroe’s Hornpipe and Lonesome Moonlight Waltz is as good as it gets.

PS: Thanks! My two biggest fiddle influences both played with Bill Monroe, un-plugged of course. I just love the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson, Byron Berline, and Jimmy Martin. I was going to also say Jim and Jesse McReynolds but they were slightly progressive. We play a version of their El Cumbanchero, a Cuban tune. We call Bill Knopf our bluegrass quality control manager. He adds most of the traditional tunes to our set list.

DB: I love how you sneak snippets of other melodies into a traditional tune like Lonesome Fiddle Blues. How did that come about?

PS: At first that came from just trying to be funny. Later the idea was to sound different then other bands, and also to get the listeners to think about what they just heard. Recently I recorded the Arkansas Traveler, written in late 1800s. When I was arranging the tune I’d been listening a lot to the pop song Smooth Operator. So, I added a jazzy solo using the minor chords of that song and people love it.

DB: Can you talk a little bit about the tradition of humor in bluegrass and why it comes so easy to you?

PS: There’s always been humor in traditional and bluegrass music. Uncle Dave Macon, Stringbean Akins, Homer & Jethro, the Dillards, June Carter Cash, and many more. We second generation pickers are just following along the lines of great comedians. My earliest recollection of humor was Gilligan’s Island, The Addams Family and Get Smart – three great funny TV shows of my childhood. I’m also highly influenced by two of the great comedians of today, Gary Mule Deer and Steve Martin. 

DB: A tune like El Cumbanchero kid of reflects your offbeat style.

PS: That’s a Jim and Jesse tune. In the version I play these days, I mix in a few Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker snippets. I like it when people say “did they just do that?” Recently, Chris Thile told me that when he and Nickel Creek were kids they were fascinated by my band. He continued, “every band sounded the same, but when you got up there it sounded completely different.” And he says that influences him today.

DB: How did you first get into bluegrass?

PS: Earlier I mentioned I grew up in a symphony orchestra. Growing up I didn’t like playing the violin. It wasn’t cool and I got teased for carrying the violin case to school. At 16 years old I found out one of my classmates played the guitar. I grabbed my violin and we learn to play our favorite rock songs by the Beatles, Cat Stevens, and Crosby Stills and Nash. The summer of 1972 my friend and I hitchhiked to Silverton, Colorado. While busking for tips from the tourists, a guy walked up with a banjo and said, “You guys are really good. Have you ever heard bluegrass?” We said no, and he invited us to his house, and the first tune he played was the recording of Vassar Clements playing Lonesome Fiddle Blues. We went back home and learned the entire Circle Be Unbroken album. Vassar was wild and I learned every lick I was capable of.

DB: Do you play different sets based on the festival and its audience?

PS: Yes, at the Parkfield Bluegrass Festival we definitely catered our set to lean to the traditional tunes.

DB: You’ve played with a lot of different people. We’d love to hear some of those interesting stories.

PS: One of my favorite times was playing with my “Circle” album hero, John McEuen. We played lots of tunes off that album, and I got to play Lonesome Fiddle Blues with Vassar! Whoo hoo!! Another incredibly interesting person to play with is Bob Weir. At first he only invited me out for the acoustic part of the show. After a few shows I told him I really wanted to play on the psychedelic portion too. I got to use my digital delay and wah wah pedals. It was far out… Wow Look at the Colors.

DB: Great stuff, there must be more.

PS: Kenny Loggins re-recorded his song Danny’s Song, and I got to play my version of the famous fiddle solo from the original track. I taught world famous classical violinist Gilles Apap a bunch of bluegrass and traditional fiddle tunes. I’d go out on tours with him and we’d play the fiddle tunes for his encores.

DB: Do you play shows outside of California?

PS: Yes, I toured nationally with John McEuen, internationally with my classical violinist friend, and across the country with a western swing band that mixed bebop in with the western swing. That was a hard band to play with. I had to learn all those bebop licks. But it was great fun!!!

DB: What is the trick to making a rock, pop or New Orleans style song work playing bluegrass instruments?

PS: When I was eight years old my dad brought home some rock and country records. From that point on, until I heard bluegrass, I wanted to be a rock guitarist but only had a violin. So I played rock guitar on a violin. As far as your question goes, all music uses the notes. It has to do with the rhythms and the tone of the instruments. Sam Bush started using rock beats with bluegrass and Monroe hated it. I liked it. As far as the New Orleans style, I played 18 years in a Cajun/Zydeco band and learned by jamming with the two top Cajun fiddlers, Michael Doucet and Kevin Wimmer. It’s all in the bowing, and you bring an accordion!

DB: Can you comment on the difference between rock and bluegrass harmonies?

PS: In rock you scream the harmonies and in bluegrass you holler them. I learned harmony by singing along with Linda Ronstadt, the Beatles, Ricky Skaggs,  the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson and every rock and bluegrass song I every learned. What’s cool about bluegrass harmonies is the little movements/inflections up-and-down at the end of phrases. I don’t hear that in rock harmonies, it’s more just straightforward. A lot of traditional singing has those inflection/movements, like Irish, Scottish, Bulgarian, and East Indian.

DB: You give private instructions on quite a variety of instruments including violin, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, viola, cello, bass. Are there different challenges in doing it online versus in person?

PS: Yes. Online you can’t jam because of the internet delay. Also, when people are beginners it helps to be able to move their hands into proper position. So it’s a bit limiting.

DB: You also teach at camps. Which ones are your favorites?

PS: I’ve taught at two different camps, Joe Craven’s RiverTunes and Camp Kiya. Both are great camps because of the community aspect and hanging out with like-minded people. But lately I’ve had some other gigs and haven’t been able to attend.

DB: Do you think the interest in traditional music is waning?

PS: The festivals we played this year were all packed and sold out, or close to it. And they were mostly featuring traditional music.

DB: What hobbies do you have?

PS: Lucky me, my job is also my hobby! I’ve been hosting a local bi-monthly jam for 18 years in Ventura with Gene Rubin. It’s now at Grapes and Hops at 454 East Main Street. It’s fun to get out and jam with the local musicians and my students. I also like 4×4 camping.

DB: Have you ever done anything professionally that wasn’t music related?

PS: I worked at a Jack In The Box for three weeks when I was 16 years old.

DB: What do you listen to when traveling to and from gigs?

PS: My car has streaming radio built in. I have a news station, traditional Mexican music station, Doc Watson station where I get my bluegrass, Bob Wills station, Jerry Garcia station, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, a Bollywood Indian station, and a hip hop station.

DB: How can people contact you?

PS: People can email me at phil@pskfband.com and search for me on YouTube. I’m at pskfband on instagram and @pskfband on twitter. Additional concert info can be found at www.pskfband.com/in-concert. Our albums are on Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

DB: Thanks again Phil and looking forward to seeing you on the circuit.

PS: And I’m looking forward to seeing you out there too.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org. He is forever indebted to copy editor Jeanie Poling for cleaning up his act.