Rare headliner appearance
for local Dobro legend
By Garian Vigil
The Colorado bluegrass community will enjoy a rare treat when Lyons local Sally Van Meter takes the stage to headline the February 24 "Bluegrass at the Audi" concert. Sally is widely known for her slide talent on the steel and resonator guitars, and for her expertise in the recording studio. She earned a GRAMMY for her work on The Great Dobro Sessions and can boast quite an impressive resume as a performer, studio musician and producer. She’s also known as quite a private, humble person, and one who generally doesn’t seek the limelight for herself. We certainly feel privileged to host her at the Audi and to let our readers know her a little better through the pages of Pow’r Pickin’.
Sally Van Meter grew up in northern California near Chico. Sally notes that her entire family was musical, which influenced her precocious interest in studying music, starting with guitar at age 8. Her father performed in an Hawaiian trio and her mother sang opera. Her brothers all played or sang, and the household listened to a wide array of genres including blues, pop, country, bluegrass and classical.
She became interested in slide, of course, by her proximity to her father’s band. “As a kid, watching the Hawaiian trio my dad was in was very influential due to their having a great steel player, Vince Akina, who was a session player in LA for many years before retiring up north,” Sally says. “I intrinsically understood what playing slide was, due to Vince’s sound—it was so clean and ‘toneful,’ and full of melody.”
As a young person in the ‘70s, she had a cornucopia of music available to her on the radio, on the stereo and live at festivals and clubs. Her various influences combined to create Sally’s personal style, one that is reverent yet unique. “I was—and still am—very influenced by players like Duane Allman, Lowell George, Josh Graves, Mike Auldridge, Lloyd Green and more players like them for their styles of soulful, lyrical phrasing and blues-influenced playing. It just seemed to make complete musical sense to me inwardly, and all those styles had a direct impact upon me even at a young age,” Sally explains.
She began playing slide guitar, lap style, around 15- or 16-years-old, and was hooked. After all these years, she still looks to her heroes to guide her own musical philosophy.
“Today, I tend to listen to the ‘Sacred Steel’ players like Darick Campbell, as well as Hawaiian steel players for the feel they get. It is like they are singing using their instruments instead of their voices. Slide guitar is about the vocal way of playing, it bends notes, it slides notes and there is vibrato, and more. Slide playing is so often referred to as having a voice, and I agree,” Sally says.
In the mid-seventies, Sally was a founding member of the path breaking Good Ol’ Persons. They performed throughout the ‘70s and ’80s, and have gained iconic status within the international bluegrass community. Sally also recorded and performed with the likes of David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas, the latter producing her first CD and including her as the lone female instrumentalist on The Great Dobro Sessions.
She counts that recording and its GRAMMY win as one of her greatest musical achievements. Others, she says, are recording with legends like Taj Mahal and Lloyd Green (the great steel guitarist), and spending time with players like Jerry Douglas and Darick Campbell. “Overall, perhaps my biggest music achievement is that I am still playing, still making good music, and still loving it,” she says.
In 1996, Sally moved to Colorado, settling in Lyons. Here she found a remarkable bluegrass community, one that supports all members regardless of the level of fame, talent or ability. “The bluegrass community and scene is truly different here in Colorado in that there is such community within the community. There is no underlying jealousy, no over-competitiveness among the bands. Instead, there is a real sharing kind of way of being part of this community,” Sally says.
“There is a great deal of mutual respect and support among the musicians in Colorado. I have yet in my 22 years here in Colorado to see anything negative within this community,” she continues. “People are genuinely interested in the traditional music, even though there is a pretty big push to become a more jam-grass oriented band setup. There is respect paid to and love for the real stuff out here.”
The community in Colorado offered solace from the rough touring life—as well as an opportunity to produce, which sort of fell into her lap. “I helped out a local friend 18 years ago to record his first project in the studio, and that got me a recommendation from the engineer as being someone who was a taskmaster, yet easy to work with and supportive of the musicians,” Sally says. “It kind of snowballed from that point forward. I never planned to become a producer, but am very happy that it turned out this way for me.”
Her first experience in the producer’s chair was with northern Colorado’s Open Road bluegrass band, around 1999. That solidified her love of working with musicians to craft what she calls a special “magic” that occurs when they let go of distractions to gather energy for artistic creation inside the studio space.
“I live for the studio experience, whether doing session work—which is what I love most—or producing bands’ projects for them. We become a family for that time we are in the studio, and remain good friends for life through music. I am honestly thankful that producing found me. I feel that there is not much difference for me between playing on stage or in the studio. They both do the same thing for me,” she says.
Sally produced all of the Open Road recordings, two of the Yonder Mountain String Band albums, two of Spring Creek’s CDs and a number of other folk and singer-songwriter projects. Recently, she produced Greg Blake’s Heart and Home, a Bonnie & the Clydes recording and a California bluegrass project called The BowTies, featuring a very soulful guitarist Yoseff Tucker (who will join her on the stage of the Audi).
She also recently produced The Lonesome Days on their first studio CD. The story of her work with The Lonesome Days is illustrative of the interwoven and supportive Colorado community that Sally has come to love. “[Band member] Todd Lilienthal is a longtime friend of mine; in fact, I was his first banjo instructor. When Todd came to me to talk about doing their first studio project, I took it seriously,” she says.
Being close to the band meant Sally knew their talent and potential. She also already knew that she had musical chemistry with them.
“I met [mandolinist and vocalist] Jonny Miller at a RockyGrass campground late night jam.” She says she “fell in love with his energy, his singing and playing,” on the spot. “He kind of knocked me over,” she remembers. “I am known for just hanging around to listen to the jams at the campground, but his commitment to singing those songs made me sit right down, introduce myself—something that everyone who knows me well knows that I don’t often do that kind of thing—and start playing and singing with him. Again, just one of those things that clicked automatically for me.”
The Lonesome Days gathered at eTown with Sally’s favorite studio engineer James Tuttle, “and we just got right down to it.” Sally worked with band members to find the best feel, sound, energy and arrangement for their original songs. “They have a sound that is theirs only,” she says, “and this is often a big factor in my deciding whether it will work for me as a producer.”
Her production philosophy holds that she shouldn’t change a band’s inherent style, but should simply polish them up so they shine. “As a producer, you are the one that in a sense is most responsible for what comes out as a complete package of the band. You don’t need to change the bands original intent; you just help them make it solid and real,” she says.
“The Lonesome Days recording turned out great. They are getting rave reviews and interest from other labels; those are two important things for any band,” Sally notes. “They played great, they worked so hard, took critique where it was needed and they made a great first recording. I am very proud of them—and happy for them.”
In putting together a band for her headlining performance at the Audi, Sally chose from musicians she has produced in the studio, specifically members of Open Road, and The BowTies’ Yoseff Tucker. “I play with all these wonderful players as often as time and schedule allow. I worked for years with Caleb Roberts, Keith Reed and Eric Thorin during the Open Road era, and it just seemed like the right choice. We make great music together whether in the living room at my house, a jam session late night at RockyGrass, or on stage. It is just a natural fit for us,” she says.
Yoseff Tucker, a California central valley picker, also has that ‘natural fit’ for Sally. Not only is he from her native state, but also has many musical influences in common. “When we first met, Yoseff and I found things in common that quickly became that kind of familiar family thing. We both grew up listening to Vern Williams, hold a close friendship with Vern’s son Del Williams, and finally, my brother Daniel, with whom we both have enjoyed evenings of straight up traditional bluegrass playing with him and Del at home,” she recalls.
Sally is looking forward to performing with her handpicked sidemen at the Broomfield Auditorium. “One of the best things about playing a venue like the Audi is that it is a proper place to bring the music more intimately to the audience. You can really put a show on for the folks. So many times bluegrass players can only find work in bars and noisy places, so making good music is a bit harder on musicians,” she says.
Sally feels passionately that the sit-down, quiet theatre-style venue will allow a deeper experience for both performers and audience members alike, she says. “Often the goal for the musician is that you hear the nuance that is so alive and vibrant in traditional bluegrass. Musicians love venues like this, because we know it means that we can give our all musically and connect strongly with our audience.”
“Putting this particular group of players was just right for me, for us all. The five of us just love to play traditional bluegrass together because we all get what the power in traditional bluegrass is really about. It is about history and storytelling; it is about ensemble playing that feels so right—the musical whole, if you will allow. For me, it just doesn’t get any better than this. I really hope we fill the theatre, it is a lovely venue, well arranged in terms of seating and sound, plus it helps support the CBMS, which is very important to the Colorado bluegrass music scene.”
To buy tickets for Sally Van Meter and True Bluegrass, point your Web browser to the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society site at ColoradoBluegrass.org.