Fats Kaplin – Groove and vibe
Fats Kaplin can play just about anything with strings, and a lot of things without. He is renowned for his skill on fiddle, accordion, pedal steel, guitar, dobro, mandolin, and frying pan; in addition to being a world-class musician, Fats (he was once a skinny kid named Karl) is a formidable chef.
It all ties together with his insatiable desire to learn more about the many things that interest him, whether he is studying the Oud with a Turkish master musician in Istanbul or brushing up on sauces in rural Tuscany.
Kaplin’s professional career began at 17 when he went on tour with acoustic bluesman Roy Book Binder. He has gone on to play with Tom Russell, the Tractors, Pure Prairie League and others. His work in a trio with Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch has resulted in two albums. When he’s not on the road supporting others, Kaplin does session work in Nashville.
NO DEPRESSION: How did you get started playing music?
FATS KAPLIN: I grew up in New York City in a family of artists. When I was about 10 or 11, it was the mid-’60s, right in the middle of the folk boom. We spent a lot of time in Washington Square Park. I’d see banjo players, and people singing. I had an uncle, Uncle Tom. He was very, very influential to me. He was my mother’s brother.
Tom played banjo and so I wanted to play banjo too. So I got a little banjo and I got the red Pete Seeger book. I played around with it for a year or two and would play some folk songs and things like that. Pete Seeger had a show on PBS back in the ’60s called Rainbow Quest. He would play and then have special guests like Elizabeth Cotten and the like. I would always watch it just to see him play banjo.
A lot of people would see a rock band and say, “When I saw the Beatles, or when I saw AC/DC, I flipped out and I just wanted to play electric guitar.” For me, it was the New Lost City Ramblers on Rainbow Quest doing the fiddle/guitar/banjo thing. I just thought that was the hippest thing I had ever seen, the greatest thing I had ever heard, this string band music, and suddenly I wanted to play fiddle.
Living in New York City, I’d go down to Lincoln Center and I realized that there were all these reissues on County Records, all those New Lost City Ramblers records. From there I went into the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Dave Van Ronk, and from there into early blues. I was just astounded that there was this much different stuff available. I then realized there were these folk festivals, so I started going out to listen to other people play.
ND: How did you become a professional musician?
FK: I went to a few folk festivals and met some other teenagers who were playing. We got a little band together and were playing some folk-type music. We were playing at a small festival in New Jersey that Roy Book Binder was playing at. I went over and listened to him. Afterwards they had some party and I was there and I was playing and he walked by, and we played a tune or something.
At that point I didn’t know that much about that kind of early East Coast blues style. We started working together and I began really immersing myself in the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter, Lonnie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, that kind of stuff.
ND: One of your first gigs with Book Binder was opening for Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee at Max’s Kansas City…
FT: And we got a review in The New York Times that I think I still have down in my basement.
ND: That had to be pretty heady stuff for a 17-year-old.
FK: It was, and playing with Pink Anderson, going down to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and getting him. I had never been down south before in my life.
ND: What happened after you left Book Binder?
FK: I left Book Binder when I was 20 or so. I got really interested in early jazz. I started playing Joe Venuti-esque stuff, or trying to, and realized that I needed a lot more chops. I started studying more seriously, and playing a little jazz. I ended up in Las Vegas at the age of 21. I went out there for music and ended up becoming a craps dealer at the Four Queens, which was the only other job I’ve ever had in my life other than playing music.
I was out there for two years before returning to New York. Back in New York I kind of hacked around doing a few different things and finally wound up getting a call from Tom Russell.
ND: He called wanting you to join his band?
FK: They needed a fiddle player to play a gig in New York City. He was playing a lot of country cover-type stuff that was very big at that point. He called me up, I went down and played, just fiddle, and stayed with him for seven-plus years.
ND: So it was a pickup gig that lasted seven years?
FK: It was. We had a lot of simpatico stuff. At that time I was getting kind of immersed in playing conjunto accordion and he was really into Tex-Mex music. I was also playing a lot of steel guitar at that point.
ND: Where did you go after Tom Russell?
FK: I had met Kevin Welch at a festival in Switzerland. He called me up when he was playing in New York with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, so I came by and sat in with both bands. Oddly enough, the week that the Tom Russell Band disbanded, Kevin called me up out of the blue, and said, “Have you ever thought about moving to Nashville? I’m trying to put together a band.” And it was like a bolt from the blue for me because I was really trying to get out of New York City. A couple of months later I moved and I fell right in and did well. It’s been good working here.