Sally Van Meter has been a professional musician since 1976, recording, performing and garnering recognition from fans and peers, including a 1994 Grammy Award.
She comes from a musical family where her mother sang opera. Sally grew up in a “super classical household that also listened to everything from Rose Maddox to Bill Monroe to Jimi Hendrix, so a lot of different influences at an early age.” Around seven years old, she picked up a guitar and learned her first chords and when she could pick up an instrument and learn to play it, she would. “Music is the thing that means the most to me in life.”
The Instrument Chooses the Player
The main instrument most people know Sally for is dobro. “But I play whatever I can play for whomever needs it.” That includes a lot of rhythm guitar, five-string banjo (clawhammer and Scruggs style) and lap steel, and she “tinkers around on a few other things. I really wanted to be a fiddle player but dobro just seemed to pick me. The slide guitar made sense to me. I’m so glad it found me because I never would have chosen it.”
(photo: 2018 recording w/eTown studio band - Sally was the producer/slide player)
Sally is fully self-taught by ear. Growing up in a fairly small, poor farming community, there were “few teachers, no capos for guitars, no nothing. From twelve to sixteen years old, I would just sit and listen to Duane Allman and Lowell George of Little Feet. Somehow I figured out - I don’t know how - that both musicians played to an open tuning, so I tuned my guitar (a little Martin 00-17, the family guitar) to an E chord. I would just sit with the record playing trying to learn all of Lowell George’s stuff. That was a huge influence for me.”
Good Ol’ Persons
In the 1970s, when Sally was an “eighteen-year-old semi-hippie chick,” she came across a group of people that got together a few times a week and had potlucks and played bluegrass – “everything from The Stanley Brothers to Old & In the Way, just a wide range of stuff. I got to know them and eventually became part of a little home-grown band in Chico (northern CA).”
Sally had a roommate that brought home Mike Aldridge’s first solo record. “He picked it out of a Salvation Army bin because he liked the cover, which has a beautiful dobro on the cover. I listened to it and my world essentially exploded. I had never heard anything so beautiful. I wore out the vinyl record and learned as much as I could. His phrasing, his tone, everything was so beautiful. There was no turning back.”
Later, Sally played a benefit for the bluegrass association and was noticed for her skills and bravado. “They somehow located me and asked me to play gigs with them. That was the band Good Ol’ Persons with Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis and a few others. I went down with some friends in a 1967 Volkswagen van named Elvira and played a couple of gigs.” Eventually they asked Sally to join the band, so she packed up her few meager possessions and moved to the Bay area to become a full-time member of that band for the next twenty-one years.
Moving to Colorado
In 1996, Sally “hit a place where it was just so hard to live in a giant metropolitan area.” One of her friends suggested visiting Colorado to see what it was like. She did and has been here ever since. “I’ve been super busy producing and playing and getting to have a spiritually great (certainly not monetarily) career as a player.”
She became aware of the Denver Folklore Center when she moved to Colorado. “I found out there was this great music store that had a small concert hall. Everybody knew each other, there was no competition, there was no climbing the ladder for the highest position, it was all really collaborative and supportive. I was kind of burned out when I moved here and ready to quit playing music for a while. The life you have to have to be a touring musician, it’s not the easiest life and when you don’t make a lot of money, it’s even harder. But I met a lot of musicians who helped me figure out the lay of the land in Colorado and a lot of them were involved with the DFC. Mary Flower, Molly O’Brien, they really showed me what a strong community was, especially the bluegrass community, that really supports each other. That’s one of the things that impressed me about the DFC.”
Sally has always taught music. “I love teaching music, because it’s helping someone open a door they think is closed to them. I teach a lot of camps across the country, all the way to England and other places. It’s collaborative. I learn a lot about myself as a player while trying to help someone who wants to make music. For me, music is something that helps make everybody a better person. I really believe that.”
And she listens to almost all music. “I listen to anything that is genuine and comes from the heart. Opera, a lot of classical – go Colorado Public Radio classical station! I listen to pop music, because I like to listen to the production qualities - I produce records for people. I listen to bluegrass. The music I like to play a lot is Celtic airs, but I can’t do the fast stuff because it’s physically really hard on a dobro. I love French Canadian Norwegian and Swedish fiddle music, Greek pop funk, if it moves you that’s what I love.”
One of the Lucky Ones
Sally considers herself fortunate to have been playing music for a living for over forty-five years. “I think about some of the things I’ve done and not many people get those opportunities in life and I really appreciate it a lot. I’ve been allowed to play music with people I admire as people and musicians, in that order. I spent almost four months of my life on tour with Jorma Kaukonen, probably the best boss I’ll ever have. And he’s a big proponent of bluegrass and acoustic deep south blues. Just getting to be part of people’s projects and produce their records, I think I’ve been one of the lucky ones.”
(photo: Jorma Kaukonen and Sally NY 2003)
When she turned fifty years old “quite a few years ago,” Sally “did kind of a crazy thing. I had hit another plateau and decided that because I had been a working musician since I was eighteen, I wanted something different. So, I applied to CU Boulder to go to school. And they took me because I was their poster child for nontraditional first-generation older people to go to college. I stuck it out for five years and got a degree in independent documentary filmmaking. I didn’t play music for about four years. I committed to school and learned a lot. It was good for me because it made me see things with a different lens. But as soon as I graduated, I went right back to music. I still make independent experimental films, but music will always be THE thing for me.”
The Importance of Live Music
Sally believes people should value live music venues and supporters. “People are lucky to have places like the Denver Folklore Center and Swallow Hill Music, because … they say in crazy times, art and music get you through, those are the things that never go away. This time (during the pandemic) we came dangerously close to losing a lot of that. When someone says I live in Denver, who would you recommend, I always send them to the DFC and Swallow Hill. The DFC is an incredibly valuable place to everyone who wants music as part of their everyday church practice, if you will. In the days of yore, back in the early to mid ‘70s, there was the 5th String music store in San Francisco and Berkeley, and Freight & Salvage, which I used to play at the old one. Sixty people packed the room and you would have them almost against your feet. And that’s what I think about the DFC and Swallow Hill. They bring us live music and we don’t want to lose that.”
(photo: Sally and Tony Rice at Merlefest)
Check out Sally’s solo record and “my favorite thing I’ve ever done” – “Tre Mistiche – A Small Congress of Ballad, Weissenborn & Waltz”. She describes the making of the album as a casual process. “Anybody who would come through town, we would go sit in the studio and order pizza, get a bottle of wine and just play and see what would come up. I did that with a lot of musicians and friends. This record is the one that best represents me, I think.” You can learn more about Sally, her music and lessons on her Facebook page.
(Top photo credit: Jeremy Rosenshine Photography)