by Michael Hall (reprinted with permission from the Northern California Bluegrass Society)
Frank Solivan Sr.—who changed the future course of bluegrass music when he organized onstage children’s performances at festivals—died August 24 following a serious vehicle accident earlier this year and, more recently, a bout with pneumonia. He was 78 years old.
Frank Solivan I (Frank Sr.) had his young son Frank Solivan II (just Frank) with him at one early festival held at the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth, California. Frank the elder arranged for his son and another young picker to play music together in camp and then play a short set on stage. This performance was a huge hit, leading to the creation of an ongoing program, usually called “Kids on Bluegrass,” that Frank Sr. led at numerous Northern California bluegrass festivals. The popular main stage act involved kids at the festival auditioning, being organized into bands, rehearsing, and then finally performing before the full audience. The instruction included onstage performance techniques.
After launching at Plymouth, Frank brought the kids performances to the California Bluegrass Association Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival as “Kids on Bluegrass” in Grass Valley, as “Kids on Stage” at the Northern California Bluegrass Society Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival in Tres Pinos, and later to other California festivals. These events continued with other leadership after Frank chose to focus his work exclusively on the Father’s Day Festival, which offered two prominent evening KOB performances at each festival.
Bluegrass musician Mary Burdette played at Grass Valley, saw the KOB, and was inspired to bring the kids idea to the Grey Fox Festival she helped run in New York. Northern California Bluegrass Society’s Michael Hall was also impressed with Frank’s work and set up a Leadership Bluegrass master class featuring Frank and Mary at the IBMA World of Bluegrass convention in Nashville. This class brought Frank’s ideas to the larger bluegrass world when class attendees began to create kids performances at festivals across the country. The IBMA convention, with Kim Fox as instigator and Frank as consultant, itself began to feature hours of high-quality kids performances on a special children’s stage.
The secondary effect of the youth shows went well beyond the popularity of the act at a particular festival. Many participants formed their own youth bands that were separately booked at festivals, in addition to the regular KOB performances.
Some well-known young bluegrass stars who took this path included (from Northern California alone) Molly Tuttle, Sullivan Tuttle, AJ Lee, Josh Gooding, Max Schwartz, and Annie Staninec. The new bands included The Tuttles with A J Lee, Crying Uncle, Jubilee, North Country Blue, Birches Bend, The Blue Js, 45 Years Of Trouble, Salty Sally, Who’s Feeling Young Now, Pacific Ocean Bluegrass Band, OMGG, and many more.
Sharon Nichols Elliott began to work with Frank at the Plymouth festival and helped teach the kids over many years. She was also the publicist for the show. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her. Regina Bartlett also helped with KOB and also ran the KOS program at the Good Old Fashioned fest for many years. Many other volunteers worked with Frank and the kids as time passed. Frank recently retired from the KOB after three decades of teaching and organizing.
In addition to creating the KOB, Frank was a popular banjo player, emcee, and an enthusiastic supporter of bluegrass music in Northern California. He helped host the famed CBA California Hospitality Suite at the IBMA convention. He also worked as a volunteer at the Strawberry Music Festival when it was held at Camp Mather near Yosemite, where he hosted one of the most popular jam camps.
He took great pride in the success of his son Frank, as he first joined the US Navy Bluegrass Band Country Current and then his own Washington, DC-based band, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. Frank Sr. joined the internationally-touring band on some of its travels, and he was always there when his son and his band were honored with IBMA Awards.
When he took time off from bluegrass, Frank Sr. loved to fish most of the month of August in Alaskan waters. He was often joined by his son, who is a chef as well as a bluegrass musician.
Frank Sr. was born in Fresno and lost his father at a young age. He grew up with his mother and step-father Nick Ventura and lived throughout the Central Valley. Frank was a member of a large musical family — he had four brothers and five sisters. His extended family played multiple musical genres, and his mother taught all of the children music. Frank chose bluegrass banjo as his instrument of choice as an adult. Frank attended Galt High School and, after graduation from beauty school in Hayward, worked for a time as a beautician. He then joined his brother and worked in the roofing business. He later repaired mobile homes.
Frank Solivan Sr. is survived by his son and one sister.
Michael Hall is a member of the IBMA Foundation board of directors.
RETURN to the September 2023 issue of The Cornerstone.