Frank Solivan just keeps getting better, as a songwriter, arranger, singer and, not the least, instrumentalist. Recent years have seen a string of solid recordings, IBMA nominations and awards, and growing recognition for Solivan and his band.
His newest recording is, to these ears, his best yet. But don’t take my word for it. Check out his new project for Compass Records, Frank Solivan; Family, Friends and Heroes. If the liner notes don’t sell you – Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, Mike Bub, Jim Hurst, Ronnie McCoury, John Cowan and others, including Frank’s Dirty Kitchen band — just two tracks will.
First is the bluegrass chestnut, Dark Hollow. This is just Frank’s vocal, with his mandolin in one channel and Sam Bush’s mandolin in the other. Never have two instruments and a lone voice said so much. I don’t play the mandolin, other than a handful of two-finger chords, but I find myself mesmerized by the incredible interplay of the two instruments every time I listen. This is Exhibit A for the thesis that sometimes in music, less is more. I may never hear this jam favorite the same way again.
The other track is the Johnny Cash classic, I Still Miss Someone. On this one, the family, friends and heroes are out in full force. But there’s no charity here. Everyone that plays on this song — on the whole recording, actually — is a first-rate musician, and the version they deliver will stick with you like one of Frank’s legendary gourmet meals. An extra dose of poignancy is found in the liner notes: This song was recorded on what would have been the 62nd birthday of Frank’s mom, Lorene, who died in 2014.
I was fortunate enough to meet Lorene on several occasions and to hear her sing with Frank at one memorable show a few years back. Let met just say that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
There are many other gems on this record – don’t miss Frank’s mom’s tender vocal on a bluesy workup of Wayfaring Stranger and Del McCoury’s “mercy” on Pretty Woman, among others. Not a typical bluegrass cut by any stretch, but Frank has a knack for taking on pop songs and making them his own. One terrific example from a few years ago: The Letter, a radio smash for the Box Tops in the late 1960s. Like The Letter, Pretty Woman starts out with a straight-ahead bluegrass feel, but eventually takes off on an extended detour that any jam band fan can appreciate. I can’t wait to hear this one live, fueled by the edgy blend of Frank’s vocal and the impressive instrumental drive from his mandolin, Mike Munford’s banjo and Chris Luquette’s guitar.
There are plenty of other highlights here, but I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises. So I’ll leave it to you to discover some of the other tasty stuff Frank Solivan has cooked up this time. It will be time well spent.