There is a thriving bluegrass community in Honolulu, one that boasts some of the finest musical talents we have on the islands. It seems somehow inappropriate to call it a bluegrass ‘scene,’ because the individuals who populate the bluegrass world here are not the types that could accurately be considered part of a scene. They’re just folks who know the music and its luminaries, and they play it with a commitment uncommon in any genre.
The Saloon Pilots are a study in such commitment. The five-piece outfit consists of fiddler Lesley Kline, guitarist and mandolin virtuoso Kilin Reece and banjo player Paul Sato. Drummer Mike Carroll and bassist Alex Morrison round out a rock solid rhythm section that provides a solid textural counterpoint to the dizzying finger picking and fiddle lines offered by the stringed instruments.
And while the musicianship of the individual members of the band is prodigious in itself, the vocal arrangements of the Saloon Pilots ground the band in its milieu. Bluegrass is a musical world of stories, some grim, some wistful, some whimsical. The way these stories are sung is often complicated, and it takes people who understand the nuances of narrative to be able to pull it off without being corny.
Bluegrass music is a uniquely American artform, provincial in origin but oddly accessible and universal in its appeal. Lesley Kline was drawn in at an early age (she estimates 9), and while she is classically trained, she has never strayed far from her bluegrass roots. Hers is a storied career that includes years in a mariachi band in the cafes of Paris, wild continental nights that found her the center of the world in dimly lit music halls. When prodded for stories about those days and nights in France, she is humble, understated and perhaps even coy.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she says. ‘We played all over.’ But how does a classically trained violinist end up in a mariachi band in France? Kline smiles. ‘Hey man, it paid.’
Also rather unlikely is banjo picker Paul Sato. It seems almost impossible that a local Japanese guy, a Kaimuki High grad with a career in fine jewelry would end up being possibly the most sought after banjo player in the Pacific. Sato plays with a passion and precision that befits the backwater stereotype of a banjo picker, but he really is just a guy from Kaimuki. He offers a simple explanation. ‘I was probably a moonshiner in a past life, shot dead by the law in Tennessee. That’s the only thing I can think of.’
But truthfully, when Sato first heard bluegrass music, he was hooked. He started on guitar but quickly gravitated to the banjo in the nascent Honolulu bluegrass scene in the ’70s. ‘I don’t understand the guitar,’ he says. ‘Ever since I first heard the banjo, I’ve had this desire to play at that level.’
Guitarist Kilin Reece is another musical anomaly in the Honolulu music world, a born player from Oklahoma and master guitar/’ukulele builder, who plies his trade at Hawai’i Music Supply. Equally skilled on mandolin and guitar, Reece plays with an understanding of the music that makes him a true bluegrass musician rather than a musician that happens to play bluegrass. His singing voice is perfectly suited to the music and makes one wonder if he gravitated to bluegrass because it suited his voice, or if his love for the music shaped the way he sings. ‘I don’t know,’ he offers. ‘I’m from Oklahoma. Maybe that has something to do with it.’
Drummer Mike Carroll has the most solid hereditary pedigree of all of the members of the Saloon Pilots. He hails from, as he puts it, ‘somewhere in Georgia,’ and he has the southern drawl to prove it. Carroll plays with a perennial smile, shuffling his brushes under the passionate picking of Reece and Sato, providing a backbeat that leaves plenty of room for the vocal harmonies explored by Kline, Sato and Reece. Carroll has a day job working for the National Parks Service, a gig to which he is perfectly suited.
‘I just got back from a training workshop in the Sierra Nevada mountains,’ he says, grinning maniacally. ‘It was unbelievable. I’m not sure, but I think at one point I was actually getting paid to hang out in a jacuzzi.’
Saloon Pilots bassist Alex Morrison is certainly the quietest of the group, but only in his comportment. His lines on the stand-up bass are authoritative but not intrusive, and they work better for the bluegrass sound than an electric bass ever could. Morrison also holds a doctorate in archaeology.
That is the magic of the Saloon Pilots, an unlikely blend of musicians who would not likely have even ever met were it not for their love of bluegrass music. All are accomplished in other aspects of their lives, but each member remains committed to the music and to their band.
That commitment is truly paying off for the Saloon Pilots, as they now have a steady flow of regular gigs and special performances. Most notable among them is a two-night stand with the Honolulu Symphony Pops in March when Wynona Judd will perform at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. When asked about the show, Kline is typically understated. ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I guess it’s pretty huge.’
While bluegrass music may not draw huge crowds or command significant radio airplay in Honolulu, its denizens are loyal and its players are truly devoted to their craft. It is a quiet scene, one happy to enjoy its intimacy, and we are all the richer for having it here on our shores.
Catch the Saloon Pilots in two upcoming shows
On stage with Mark Cosgrove at rRed Elephant, 1144 Bethel St., Sat. 2/17, 7pm, $25 at the door, firstname.lastname@example.org, 545-2468.
On stage with Blue Turtle Seduction at Waimea Valley Audubon Center, Sun. 2/18, 6:30pm, $22 advance, $25 at the door, tickets at alohagroove.com or Surf & Sea in Haleiwa, 262-0945.